In a new section we join architecture school studios to discover what students are thinking and discovering. First up is Manchester
This September the number of cranes on Manchester’s skyline broke city records, reaching 64. Numerous large practices have been opening up offices in the city and there are now nearly 150. Under mayor Andy Burnham the city region is capitalising on the development with its own design manifesto. And Manchester School of Architecture, one of the UK’s largest with Part I and II students, is also growing and drawing themes from its city – from policy and data-driven regional planning to bringing together historic environment and community to make better places.
So it is apposite to launch this new RIBA Journal series with the Manchester school. Our intention is to get inside architecture schools and design projects to understand some of their investigations and excitements, from the speculative to the more prosaic. Students hear about these from fellow students, and practitioners from portfolios, but we hope to capture the headspace and pioneering thinking that comes with teaching and studying. These can be rare commodities in the treadmill of practice – yet they enrich it greatly. Student work may draw a lot from practice (just think of all those references to Zumthor) but it also pushes the envelope in scope, technology and, most importantly, design ideas. You may not have yet have designed with algae but even before Arup built its BIQ house in Hamburg in 2013, student projects were already exploring its potential.
The optimism and future thinking of design teaching in schools stand against a background of crippling student debt and pressures on education delivery. Current students will likely leave their diploma with debts of £100,000 and be paying them back into their forties. As apprenticeships develop they will change this model: we will also look at them as more come on stream.
The raft of newbuild university architecture and design schools – an incredible investment in the university estate – has been undermined by the income-driven pressure to fill their spaces beyond capacity with students. The miraculous moment of a right-sized school with busy but uncrowded workshops and studio space for each student is fleeting, lasting for perhaps a couple of years after redevelopment. The argument is that whole faculties and universities are full of touch down and collaboration spaces and, anyway, you rarely get everyone in attendance at the studio. But this ignores the peculiarly physical nature of architecture (if you can’t leave your model safely do you drag it in on the bus or would you just work from home?) and the value of sharing and developing projects with your studio team.
Jefferies characterises the MArch as questioning what architecture and cities should be
In the same way teaching can often be so stretched that the much-vaunted (and valued), peer-to-peer learning has to replace one to one time on a project with a tutor. Tutoring 17 students in a weekly day of studio teaching, even with input from other experts, risks sending the tutor into automaton mode. So, as well as capturing the ideas of some of the studios and ateliers of schools, we want to get a snap shot of each institution we profile in terms of tutor resource and studio space.
So where does Manchester School of Architecture fit into all this? It has had a new building, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley and Stirling Prize nominated in 2014. Connecting textiles and other art disciplines with architecture, it is an exciting space with an openness and energy and cross-cutting big bridges adding an Escher-ish thrill.
Head of school Tom Jefferies arrived in 2011 with a plan to link research activity with design. So the MArch has eight ateliers, each directly connected to a strand of research activity. ‘As academic staff pursue their own interests so they help direct the ateliers,’ says Jefferies, continuing: ‘A masters cannot run without a research agenda. I reshaped some and closed those without any research.’ His idea is that this discipline brings greater connectivity with external partners so the impact of work is wider.
The ateliers are intended to be collaborative groups gathered around a research question, enabling a range of views and opinions. He characterises the MArch in all its forms as questioning what architecture and cities should be. ‘We acknowledge the city as a starting point,’ he says. ‘We’re based in Manchester, it is an urban situation.’That seems to work for the MArch students, where half are drawn from the undergraduate programme and many want to carry on to work in the city. The university does its best to connect them with an annual open review of sixth years by 60-70 practitioners from Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire as well as Manchester itself. But Jefferies is clear that this is an academic not vocational course. ‘It is a mistake to think practices know best,’ he says.
Infrastructure Space Research
Jefferies’ own atelier, Infrastructure Space Research, focuses on large scale mapping, using data sets and policies alongside more obviously spatial information on things such as communities and housing. The results are often complex models. ‘It tends to have a social agenda,’ explains Jefferies. He sees that you can produce architecture in a ‘formal bubble’ but is determined to avoid this. Two years ago the atelier’s focus was on the Highlands – inquiring how healthcare can deliver on a regional policy of equality across the massive geographical range from Glasgow to Ben Nevis. Data mapping brought together health, connectivity, energy and demographics. Out of it came at a project for remote diabetes sensing, delivered by NHS Highlands and small company Tactical Wireless. ‘It saved at least one person having their foot amputated,’ says Jefferies.
Last year, working with the Satellite Applications Catapult, it concentrated on how Cornwall operates as a region over the course of the year, given the ebbs and flows of visiting tourists in a context where essential services are all sized for the local, winter, population. ‘How do you create a dynamic model of spatial operation when you [sometimes] have four times the population?’ asks Jefferies. Students mapped the issues and looked for gaps in the system, where there is space for projects to correct them with building design, digital technology or via other agencies. One proposal involved the re-use of space satellite waste, which would be processed on the site of an old airfield.
Under way now is an investigation of the Irish border question triggered by the issues raised by Brexit. A three day field trip saw the atelier following the 310 mile border, starting at Derry and searching for any evidence on the ground of any new approaches. It is too early for the projects yet to have emerged but this identification phase already goes to the core skills that the MArch must embed, says Jefferies. ‘Architects are good at looking and synthesising.’
How do you make a dynamic model of spatial operation with four times the population?
Continuity in Architecture
MArch programme leader Sally Stone takes things down a scale in her atelier, Continuity in Architecture. Here students start at the scale of 1:100, concentrating on the architectural needs of small communities and architectural solutions to help them heal. Context and place are all important. This year the title is Rochdale by way of Venice; students are expected to get to grips with Rochdale – 15 minutes away by train – a place with a complex ethnic and minority population and a reputation struggling to get beyond cases of extensive grooming of young women. But students also get their trip to Italy and a project there. ‘Venice is a great model for living very close together with a strong community,’ says Stone. Interestingly, John Ruskin was involved in both cities (including a hand in the great gothic construction of Rochdale’s town hall).
Possible interventions include objects in public space, street furniture and housing. The question is always ‘What is appropriate?’ That means understanding the buildings that are appropriate for a 21st century population considering demographics and family sizes, with the technology and techniques we have now. It is also a question of what is appropriate in detail, using the school’s workshops, designing texture 1:1 to give a level of intimacy with it. One project developed ornamental facades using new digital techniques. Stone is particularly keen on this as applied to the town’s housing need. ‘You could approach a developer and get three-bed semis or you could look at the students’ ideas which take in today’s smaller sized families, with the kitchen at the centre of the house,’ she says.
Previous years have taken as a focus Colwyn Bay in Wales and Bollington in Cheshire, where students examined its massive congestion problem and came up with ideas of how to reduce the problem – work that is now being implemented by a part time tutor through their practice.