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Industrious spaces: Manchester School of Art by FCBS

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Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios has made space work hard at Manchester School of Art, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Hufton + Crow

Widely considered the world’s first industrialised city, Manchester is a place to work, not to relax. Even Mancunians’ favoured leisure pursuits - nightlife, spectator sports and shopping - are essentially deliberate, and on Sundays the city’s industrious, swaggering, edgy and abrasive soul escapes its body, leaving only the shells of large-windowed red brick cadavers. Its higher education campus, south of the city centre and more of a district than a landscaped setting, is the largest in Britain and echoes the confident, brazen spirit of the city’s Victorian mills and factories: a chequer-board of proud, blocky department buildings, vestigial terraces, bomb sites and grisly pubs, with Lowryesque swarms of students parading up and down its main thoroughfare in Oxford Road. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ (FCBS) workmanly addition and refurbishment for Manchester School of Art (MSA), up and running ahead of this year’s degree shows, slots right in.

FCBS overclad and rationalised the school’s nine-storey Chatham Tower, providing the cellular grungy studios preferred by art students, and matched it with seven storeys of accommodation for design subjects. As you approach the entrance, framed by the terracotta canyon of Higher Ormond Street to the north, you see the bones of this diagram: the large picture windows and pivot ventilators of the opaque tower to the east and the new prismatic volume to the west, with clear and mirror glass alternately reflecting neighbouring facades and sky or revealing the spatial richness of MSA’s new interior. The black anodised fins planted on the top section of this facade aren’t there to cut out glare, but to identify a double-height volume used for crits and other functions, neatly co-joining a space with retractable seating.

Industrious spaces: Manchester School of Art by FCBS

It’s a relief not to pass through turnstiles when you enter, turning left towards the tower or right towards the ground-floor café and design spaces beyond and above, passing FCBS’ exquisitely worked timber reception desk and then through titanic doors with oversized stops. The desk announces the client’s and architect’s vision that the school’s fabric should be a bespoke showcase for design. The absence of turnstiles also announces the project’s open-planning strategy.

With the problematic districts of Hulme and Moss Side a short walk to the west, low-profile security involved a bold leap of faith, and FCBS is duly grateful for the support of the imaginative client organisation which also underpinned its Manchester Business School, winner of this year’s BCI Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award. MSA, which is also home to Manchester Metropolitan University’s school of architecture, helped FCBS realise a clear and coherent strategy of open, interconnecting spaces. The practice’s conceptual section drawing indicates the transition from low-level processes which generate high structural loads and warrant premium external access, to more contemplative and reflective activities at the top of the building.

‘Our strategy involved considering what would draw students away from their bedsits to work in the college studios,’ says FCBS partner Tom Jarman. At Stanton Williams’ Central Saint Martins which, being in London, caters for very different study patterns, these levels of student activity in the studios weren’t considered an option. FCBS’ design developed against a background of concerns that space in education buildings is being under-utilised and wasted. As Jarman explains, this is a complex subject and there are very different expectations for project-focused further-education environments and for primary schools, which have a stronger emphasis on teaching and might set space utilisation targets as high as 80-90 per cent.

Industrious spaces: Manchester School of Art by FCBS

Proposals for the organisation of MSA moved away from territorial strategies with extensive provision of what Jarman refers to as ‘bagged areas dedicated to exclusive activities’, towards overlapping studios, drop-in areas and more osmotic, interdisciplinary space. ‘We wanted to avoid the tyranny of net-to-gross ratios,’ says Jarman. Backed up by its experience, FCBS proceeded more intuitively by developing a range of room sizes and environments and focusing on the project’s character, while addressing problems such as the tendency to pre-book perimeter rooms, which can make studio space difficult to find. FCBS concentrated drop-in workspaces in the open-plan areas in the middle of the building, and their popularity has surpassed all expectation.

This open-planning strategy is at its most liberal where wash-basin areas adjacent to predominantly single-sex cubicles double up as escape stair lobbies. It’s an approach that complements the new building’s spatial grandeur, with a sequence of lofty interlocking volumes stepping upwards from north to south where daylight pours in from rooftop lanterns, drawing air through the atria by the stack effect. The regular 6m bays of the north-south axis combine with alternating 9 and 4.5m bays running east to west to generate a complex sequence of spaces, and the layers
of gently rising and falling staircases flying through them emphasise the way they spiral upwards though the staggered atria and augment a sense of procession. Experiencing these spatial qualities adjusts your reading of MSA’s blocky exterior, as you perceive a four-storey slot traversed by stairs and bridges behind its striped facade opening up to a double-height volume above and additional spaces to the south beyond.

Industrious spaces: Manchester School of Art by FCBS

The intended bespoke, crafted environment never really lives up to these spatial qualities, and given the decision to minimise risk by opting for design and build procurement probably never could have, although the project benefited from keen tender prices at the height of the recession. As it happens, the fancy details tend to be two-dimensional: for example, the transferred Lewis Day wallpaper pattern applied to internal column finishes, an in-situ variant on the lacy precast external panels which clad Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary (AJ 12.11.09). This pattern has also been transferred to perforated anodised ventilators in the facade, which Jarman notes has limited benefit as the main entrance provides ample make-up air.

There’s a lot more bespoke detail than meets the eye, in the acoustic linings, customised double-skinned fire station doors with handles designed by FCBS, OSB escape stair formwork and the fine bird’s-mouth arrises to the lacy columns. But if you want to see more sculptural three-dimensional detail, look to the flying staircases and bridges, with blonde American white oak cross-gartered by blue-grey RHS lattices. There’s nothing foofoo about the proportions of these bridges, which look as though you could drive fleets of forklift trucks across them. Rather, in a paradoxically self-conscious way, they have a grand Piranesian quality, like the gutsy structures of Manchester’s industrial heyday. Despite this Piranesiana, as the atmosphere of rapt concentration in its open studio spaces testifies, FCBS’ Manchester School of Art is a place where future Thomas Heatherwicks and LS Lowrys can work without feeling incarcerated.

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