MUMA has neatly tied up lots of problems at Manchester’s Whitworth art gallery – all it needs now is a final flourish
It is finished. Though the re-launch of Manchester’s Whitworth art gallery went with a bang – with artist Cornelia Parker’s explosive pieces spilling out into a firework display in its park – for its architect, Stuart McKnight of MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects), the process has been the gathering together of disparate elements, the final reckoning. ‘I felt we were completing it,’ he says.
The way he tells the story it has been a long haul for the Whitworth. MUMA’s project has rationalised, extended and enclosed this gallery in a park. It started life as Grove House, used as a gallery from 1890. Then James Beaumont started building alongside it, first the front section in fully blown high Victorian, and then working back – away from the long drag of Oxford Road, stage by stage over 15 years before finally demolishing the house and building over its footprint.
In the 1960s architect John Bickerdike took the symmetrical plan and in a radical reordering scooped out two offset Scandinavian-influenced galleries in the centre. When McKnight arrived for the competition he saw that the suspended ceilings covering vaults and rooflights made large dark galleries that bemused visitors. By then the blank gable ends were attracting graffiti, storage problems had become acute (art jostling with fridges), and the entrance through which visitors, art and food came was unpleasantly congested – as visitor numbers had nearly doubled from the 100,000 a year the building was designed for to 190,000 before it closed for refurbishment and extension.
So this was a problem solving exercise for MUMA – perfect for a practice whose previous work includes subtley threading light and air into the historic fabric of the 10 rooms of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the V&A. McKnight has a deep interest in the mechanics of the building as well as its history and material expression. MUMA’s U-plan extension at the back added extra gallery space, spaces for study, learning, circulation and coffee, and a way of taming the park. The new west-facing promenade gallery reaches north and south to protectively wrap the back of the existing gallery, buffering it from climatic vagaries. Digging out 40cm from the lower ground floor has made a useable space for art storage. The moves speak for themselves, with CO2 emissions predicted to reduce by 10% despite an increase in area of 30%. Public spaces have nearly doubled to 5635m2.
But there is a danger in looking at architecture as solving problems – during design and at the cusp of completion these predominate, but over years it has to stand on its own terms. This building demands to be judged in terms of its relationship with the park, to which it had for so long turned its back, and for its contribution to the gallery’s history.
What the practice gleaned from the existing space was that the south gallery, the one place where the building did open onto the park, was where visitors naturally congregated. So the first image in its competition-winning presentation shouldn’t have been a surprise. The blank gables were shown opened to the greenery to pull the galleries out towards the landscape: a seductive image for Whitworth director Dr Maria Balshaw that MUMA then had to work out how to fulfil, jokes McKnight. As you walk from the dark painting galleries into the light of the central exhibition room, your eyes are drawn to the view of the park at the end. It is only interrupted in the opening show – by embracing lovers wrapped in string, Parker’s take on Rodin’s The Kiss.
The relationship with the park is most interesting from the long view of the study centre. It sits under the eyebrows of deep brick reveals that frown with fierce concentration onto the courtyard it bounds. Overlooking the benches in the back wall will be an intense garden in the park, a space of both botanical control and engagement designed by Sarah Price, better known for her work on the gardens at London’s Olympic Park. From the garden the scholarship underpinning this university gallery will be fish-tank visible.
There is a scholarliness to MUMA’s work here too, the application of intellect and immense concentration. Beyond the metaphors the study centre is significantly placed architecturally because in captures MUMA’s demanding use of materials: the overhanging brickwork and heavy glass panes of the café sit unnaturally lightly, their weight discounted by modern structures. From here you walk out onto the Purbeck stone of the floor – smoothly turned elsewhere as a recessed handrail. Visible metal is suppressed and compressed, super thin 5mm deep brises soleil which took much testing, the wonderful polished stainless steel mullions invisibly taking a major load. Where it looks like free expression was given rein on the city-facing brickwork detail – with its references to the fringes, slubs and slash and stitch of the museum’s textile collection – the result is not quite as convincing as it looks on paper.
It is as if MUMA is irrationally demanding in every sphere. Yet in the area it had the most control from the start, the spatial configuration, rationality rules supreme. This is spatially unambitious, relying instead on views, the art and the historic building. It soothes rather than transports. I wouldn’t want it to be a Gehry or Coop Himmelb(l)au; I am relieved there are no wilful angles – but there has long been a place for the unexpected and delight in British architecture, most convincingly expressed spatially and at its best intricate and unexpected too. MUMA’s £15 million project is straightforwardly modernist in its grain and scale, sized for crowds, designed with efficient large scale components. It is problem-solving at an elevated level. Visitors won’t miss the indefinable magic, because the building all makes sense: the extension is a small part of this historic building and other interventions will remain invisible to many. But this art gallery is not finished – until it makes itself more complex again.
James Greatorex, director, Ramboll UK
Working with MUMA and then specialist fabricator TP Aspinall, we developed the design for the bespoke stainless steel mullions that support the cafe roof steelwork, providing a highly glazed space free of traditional columns.
The mullions form the primary loadbearing vertical elements, working either as columns or ties. Over the cantilevered section of the café, the columns act in tension supporting the concrete floor slab from steel beams in the roof. Further back, the mullions are directly supported from the concrete structure below and act as columns transferring roof loads, including the cantilevered weight, back to the concrete structure. The mullions also assist in resisting wind loading on the structure, transferring load by portal frame action to the stiff diaphragm of the concrete floor slab.
‘A’ shaped mullions are made from welded plates of various thicknesses, apart from a few more highly loaded columns which are solid stainless steel sections. A sample mullion, produced to verify that the fabrication process could achieve the necessary tolerance and finish, was later successfully load-tested to prove the novel structural design. This enabled the most efficient, slender and economic design to be developed, taking contractor’s design off the critical path.
Area extension: 1145m2
Publicly accessible area before works: 2890m2
Publicly accessible area after works: 5635m2
Client The Whitworth
The University of Manchester Estates
Structural engineer Ramboll
Services engineer Buro Happold
Cost consultant Appleyard and Trew
Fire engineering Fedra
Facade consultant Arup Facsade Engineering
Subcontractors and suppliers
Stone mason Powell Masonry
External glazing and doors MBM Konstruktion
Structural stainless steel mullions and brises soleil TP Aspinall and Sons
Brickwork Cara Brickwork
Pre-cast brickwork Sterling Precast
External metal cladding Cladanco
Internal glazing, doors and balustrades Arkoni
Blinds, louvres and lighting control Levolux
Gallery doors Gariff Construction and Clark Doors
Joinery TMJ Contractors
Structural and fair-faced concrete Westbourne Civil Engineering
Copings, roof balustrades Carter Origin
Slate roofing KL Vennings Slaters
GRC Simplicity Mouldings
Terracotta and Faience Shaws of Darwen
Stone Lovell Purbeck, Haysom Lander, Forest of Dean Stone
Oak flooring Ted Todd
Timber doors and joinery CW Field and Sons