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Manchester’s new sound

You’d never guess there were 290 noisy, talented pupils in Roger Stephenson Architects’ clever new building for Chetham’s School of Music, writes Philip Griffin Photography by Daniel Hopkinson

Those of us living in not-London are acutely aware that Britain’s cultural identity is carved ever deeper into the face of the capital – which is why Roger Stephenson Architects’ new building for Chetham’s School of Music is more than usually noteworthy. This, apart from being irresistibly punny, is good news for Manchester.

Chetham’s has 290 students, aged from eight to 18. Specialist music teaching is combined with academic schooling. Looking like a brick grand piano with its lid up, the building slides on to a steeply raked landscape to take the stage among disparate players, the biggest of which is the Manchester Arena.

In the couple of years before the O2 came on the scene, Manchester’s arena – then the MEN – held the record as the most successful leisure and concert venue in the world. The main impact of this 23,000 capacity box is from the air. Otherwise it is background noise. Other neighbours include Ian Simpson Architects’ catchall glass wrapper, Urbis (currently containing the National Football Museum) to which the music school is remarkably alike.

Tired, sad, and long overdue refurbishment, Victoria railway station provides this ensemble with much of its audience. The entire site has a masterplan, which involves removing one of the school’s dormitory blocks, revealing the medieval hall, cloister and Chetham’s library to the city for the first time in more than a hundred years.

Roger Stephenson began his building by designing the bricks. The long, thin, Dutch-like buff bricks have very few relatives in Manchester. However, if it were thoroughly cleaned,  much of the enclosing wall around the original 15th century Chetham’s buildings would be approximately this colour. More than half the flush-pointed bricks are set in pre-cast panels, the joints of which are well disguised (though frankly, a twitch disappointing when you do spot them). The main impact of the building is this envelope. Combined with deep-set horizontal slit windows that chase each other along the straights, the linearity clings to the curves like Sebastian Vettel at the Nurburgring. 

The best entrance is by the Cor-ten drawbridge that takes off from an existing gap between the school’s gatehouse and courtyard, and spans the River Irk from the bluff that the original medieval buildings stand on. Except that the river was culverted to make way for the railway, and the bridge is fixed. Pause mid-crossing and imagine what this place has been. Beneath the massive culvert, known to the local tunnelling community as Optimus Prime, is an intact 17th century timber cattle bridge that used to connect Long Millgate with Walkers Croft.

The new bridge offers novel views of seldom seen roofscapes. The pity is that the street you are looking down on, Walkers Croft, is no longer a street at all, but part of the new school’s curtilage. Steep steps that lead to Station Approach are now gated and locked off. Such privatisation of space is too much an urban commonplace these days, albeit Chetham’s scholars are mainly boarders in need of the security. 

From the bridge you enter by an automatic sliding steel door succeeded by heavy oak suspended gates into a triple-height space that might easily have been an open courtyard, but for the imposing ceiling inset with eight monopitch northlight skylights. Orientation: the bridge is south, across this wide atrium is north: everything to the west is the, as yet, unfunded and un-fitted concert hall and the academic school accommodation above and around it. Everything east is music school, practise rooms and recital hall. Across the open space to the north is what will be the main public entrance to the concert hall once commissioned. Eventually, the box office, cloakroom, bar and catering will open on to the space, now all shuttered off and awaiting funds of £6 to 7 million. This is an admirable exercise in future planning and goes some way to explain the unrealised feel of the space. The full-height glazed north facade may yet be replaced with a new and more distinctive setting for the concertgoers’ main entrance.

Roger Stephenson’s buildings tend not to seek easy solutions. They are not unadorned. The long south side of the atrium is lined with a timber bench flush to the glazing containing a corridor that leads to practise rooms. The glazing panels and the bench are chevroned. So, looking up, are the skylights. There are triangular striations in the timber door-surround and cladding that contain the recital hall on the north side of the atrium. The timber cladding is double height and ends at the narrow end of the space in a rather casual gap, neither door nor corridor. This architect is by no means clumsy, but the total feel of this space, the locus foci of the building, is edgy and nervous.

Just inside the north entrance, to the left of the door, is the ‘feature stair’, as the school calls it. This is a castle-like detail rising in a circular brick turret via half-moon landings. This will eventually be the public stair to the first and second levels of the 400-seat concert hall. The stairwell can be closed off at second floor, above which are classrooms. The feature stair is stripped of its features at the third floor landing, and appears to peter out as though the contractor had run out of bricks.

 There are 112 practise and teaching rooms of various sizes in the music school, many of which are box-within-box construction, acoustically glazed and sealed. One music teacher tells me that he can hardly believe there are 290 students in the place, playing, moving around and doing the things that make this a successful school. Most days there are two free public lunchtime concerts. When I take my seat, there is only me and a shiny black Steinway in the recital room. At 1.34pm a dozen students come in. A minute later, after polite applause, a nine-year-old boy is playing Prokofiev. 40 minutes later, a 14-year-old girl concludes the recital with Dave Brubeck’s King for a Day. Virtuoso playing merits its fine new setting.

Unlike many of the academies and BSF schools that precede it, Chetham’s has great poise, style and distinction. And if it isn’t note perfect, it only serves to make young musicians feel at home. The building committee, drawn from trustees, is chaired by Michael Oglesby, himself chair of Bruntwood, the North West’s biggest property company. I suspect he wasn’t an altogether compliant client. And I would guess that he is out raising money to complete the concert hall even now.

Chetham’s, the Royal Northern College of Music, the Hallé, BBC Philharmonic and Manchester Camerata, all have new or extended homes in the 21st century. These buildings, all of them notable in their ways, are an important bulwark against the cultural hegemony of London. I’m not against the capital, but I cheer more loudly for the Chetham’s kids on Young Musician of The Year. And, like in football, invariably, we win.

Philip Griffin is a writer and curator

Project data

Start on site June 2010
Contract duration 18 months
Gross internal floor area 10,600m2
Form of procurement Single stage Design and Build
Total cost £19.4 million
Cost per square metre £1,830
Client Chetham’s School of Music
Architect Roger Stephenson Architects
Structural engineer Price and Myers
M&E consultant Norman, Disney and Young
Quantity surveyor Arcadis
Acoustic consultant Arup
Fire engineer Norman Disney & Young
Project manager Drivers Jonas Deloitte
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine
CDM coordinator BCA Project Services
Approved building inspector Butler and Young

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