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RIBA Stirling Prize 2015 finalist: The Whitworth by MUMA

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At the Whitworth, MUMA has created a building that makes a real difference to a place, says Edwin Heathcote

Photography by Alan Williams and Paul Raftery

Sustainability appraisal

Project data

Architect’s view

Detail

Materials board

The way in which Victorian-brick commercial Manchester gives way to its Brutalist brick university reveals a fascinating architectural and material continuum. The big, chunky buildings, Ruskinian, Venetian, occasionally almost mid-Western warehouse, are progressively stripped back until all that’s left is their bare brick fabric – the educational buildings’ vast cubes of culture.

In a way the Whitworth reveals the same striptease within a single building, from Edwardian baroque fussiness to the fiercely pared-down, naked brick surfaces of the 1960s, here expressed in John Bickerdike’s boxy, ascetic extension. It is almost as if the Whitworth is attempting to encapsulate the transition from central Manchester to Moss Side via UMIST. The latest chapter in the building’s history, MUMA’s wonderful addition, helps weave together the Edwardiana and the Brutalism – still stripped, still brick, still stark, but delicately leavened with the fine grain and detail of an accomplished, careful and (mostly) brick extension. 

The language is visually influenced by the vocabulary of weaving and textiles

The Whitworth’s collection came out of the city’s status as the world’s first Cottonopolis, the industrial engine of a newly globalised rag trade. Its original mission was, like the V&A’s, to use its collection to educate and inspire designers and manufacturers to make more worthy and more beautiful fabrics. In recognition of this its architect, MUMA, has employed a language visually influenced by the vocabulary of weaving and textiles. In a nod to Gottfried Semper the new brick surfaces have been treated as the archetypal fabric of the wall’s origins as tent, with visual metaphors of stitching, weaving, hems and seams. But all of this is subtle enough not to draw too much attention to itself – it stays almost subliminally in the background. The details are almost Brutalist in their solid simplicity, yet this is also a generous building in its reinstatement of Edwardian spaces – stairs are brought back into use; a once-anonymous gallery has its false ceiling stripped away to reveal a top-lit gallery, which equals those lofty rooms at London’s Whitechapel or South London galleries.

MUMA’s building is largely a stitching together, a way to make existing spaces work and to open out the museum so that it can breathe – and so that its spaces feel more generous and more public. To accomplish this the rear has been opened out to the park behind it in a glass loggia characterised by a rather surprising shininess. Mullions are mirror-polished stainless steel, walls are glazed from floor to ceiling and the floors are smooth stone. This slightly surprising aesthetic is pulled out into a fully-glazed café extruded from the rear and into Whitworth Park. 

MUMA has done something here that mediates between historical moments in Modernism and, in the process, it has produced an architecture that seems to be a relative of Colin St John Wilson’s British Library, an amalgam of Modernist traditions from Aalto to Expressionism and from post-war brick brutal to municipal modern. There is the same thoughtful built-in furniture, the same careful crafting and robust but thoughtfully designed details – the suggestion that Modernism could have taken a different direction.

The building is a pleasure to be in

Yet the architect has done all this without attention seeking; constantly deferring to the existing fabric and the exhibits. The building is a pleasure to be in and it makes this wonderful – and free – Manchester institution resolutely public, resolutely open and determinedly democratic.

It is in a difficult position here as a Stirling Prize hopeful, up against social housing, a school and a university library, all worthy and fine buildings (albeit there’s NEO Bankside too). But this is a building that makes a real difference to a place, an institution and a city. It takes its fabric metaphor right through to its urban approach, stitching a building back together, and the structure and the institution back into the city. And it does it quite brilliantly. 

Edwin Heathcote is the architecture critic of the Financial Times

Sustainability appraisal

Annual CO² emissions 18.6kg/m²

At the Whitworth, sustainability pervades concept, systems and detail design but it’s all virtually invisible – save for the elegant brise-soleils. This thoroughgoing and seemingly effortless approach to sustainability reduced the museum’s predicted carbon emissions by 10 per cent despite the building’s footprint growing by 30 per cent.

With the support of a progressive client, MUMA and M&E consultant Buro Happold have pioneered a radical approach to environmental control in museum galleries: omit the cooling. Humidity is controlled by a conservation heating strategy which means gallery temperatures drop in winter and rise in summer. Adopted for both permanent and temporary galleries, this bold no air conditioning strategy is likely to imply detailed negotiations with lenders and insurers.

Sustainability at The Whitworth started with concept design. The west elevation, a blind facade prior to refurbishment, has been opened up to light and views of Whitworth Park beyond, while a new ‘promenade’ gallery, shaded with meticulously proportioned 5mm-thick stainless steel louvres, creates a thermal buffer zone between the Victorian building and the afternoon sun. Earth tubes, whose intakes are cleverly concealed beneath garden seating, supply preconditioned outdoor air.

Similar thinking is apparent in material specification. English Purbeck stone has been randomly sized to accommodate quarry offcuts, while a flame finish enables the use of imperfect stone in the park, simultaneously providing an anti-slip surface.

We need more buildings like this.

Hattie Hartman, sustainability editor

The_Whitworth_26_Alan_Williams

Project data

Construction cost £15 million
Total public spaces 6,000m²
Construction cost per m2 £2,500/m²
Start on site November 2012
Completion February 2015
Form of contract Traditional JCT
Client The Whitworth, University of Manchester
Structural engineer Ramboll
M&E consultant Buro Happold
QS Appleyard & Trew
Project managers (university) Drivers Jonas Deloitte (gallery) Cragg Management Services
CDM co-ordinator AA Projects

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Architect’s view

‘A good museum or gallery is a place where people feel comfortable. If it stands in a garden or a park, one should be able to appreciate the beauty of the outdoors as a counterpoint to the beauty within.’

This quote from 1932 by Margaret Pilkington, a previous Whitworth director, prefaced the competition brief. It struck a chord with us and underpins our design approach at The Whitworth. Despite being the first English gallery in a park, a visit to the building was an internalised experience with little connection to the green surroundings and little or no natural light in the galleries.

The competition brief set out the client’s strong, clear vision, including a wish to better connect with the park. The brief set out very clearly a range of fundamental needs, without being definitive in how these needs would be met. Our proposal explained how they could be achieved, responding to the specific site characteristics. We would extend a formal symmetrical building bounded by an urban streetscape to the north and east and by a park to the south and west.

We introduced openings at significant locations to create connections with the park

We created connections with the park, introducing openings at significant locations to provide the heart of the existing building with daylight and a range of long views – each engaging with the green space beyond. Two new wings of contrasting character extend into the park containing an open garden court. To the south, the transparent, slender wing of the café takes advantage of the view to the avenue of mature trees. To the north the more solid form of the Landscape Gallery and Study Centre provides an urban edge to the street which contains and buffers the garden court. Relocated from its former location at the congested gallery entrance, the café was conceived of as a destination in its own right, drawing visitors through the gallery to a space within the trees.

To the south and west, with its transparency and framed views out of and into the gallery spaces, the extension connects the gallery to its mature parkland setting. It offers views into the building, inviting the park users to explore the gallery. As well as providing an enhanced resource for the university scholars, the project has a social role supporting the Whitworth’s engagement with the culturally diverse communities and economically challenged local wards of Rusholme and Moss Side.

The client’s consultation procedure had shown that many potential visitors found the main entrance through the formal east elevation to be intimidating. To counter this, transparency was introduced, both to the extension and also through new openings in the existing facades, so it would engage with those using the park and invite them to explore the Whitworth – in our client’s words, ‘making different kinds of people feel comfortable in the gallery and feel that it belongs to them’.

It has reaffirmed our belief in the importance of a client with a clear vision

From the outset we enjoyed a strong and positive working relationship with gallery director and project sponsor Maria Balshaw, borne out of a shared vision for the potential of the building and its setting. The project has reaffirmed our belief in the importance of and great advantage of working with a client who has a clear vision, and working on a project that resonates with our ethos, and where we feel we can make a contribution.

JW Beaumont’s gallery was built of red brick and terracotta. In material and ornament, the building is typical of the architecture of Manchester.With its interior substantially remodelled in the 1960s, the building’s unique blend of late Victorian facade and influential Scandinavian Modernist interior is Grade II listed. Working in this context, the design of the new extension employs a complementary material palette.

Working within a sector that is increasingly conscious of its environmental responsibilities, the Whitworth project builds on work previously developed in our Medieval & Renaissance Galleries at the V&A; ‘slow conservation’ strategies, controlling temperature and humidity within wider limits and with careful regard to rates of change. This has avoided the need for active cooling and humidification as well as the associated equipment and maintenance costs. We understand that the Whitworth is the first project to use this method for temporary exhibition galleries.

The budget was tight and we had to constantly consider priorities. As there is an ongoing maintenance plan for the existing building, this aspect of the project was one of agreeing priorities and releasing potential. As with our previous projects there were some aspects of work at the Whitworth where we explored interesting engineering challenges to achieve an appropriate and site specific and sustainable architectural solution. We have been fortunate to be able to work with some excellent consultants and specialist subcontractors who understand our quality expectations and have risen to the technical challenges.

We won the design competition for the Whitworth in 2009, shortly before the opening of our Medieval & Renaissance Galleries project at the V&A in London. As a further gallery project, it is natural for the Whitworth to be a continuation and development of the ideas that informed our architectural work at the V&A and our gallery projects in Newlyn and Penzance in Cornwall. Nevertheless, each project starts life as a blank sheet of paper and an analysis of site and brief to draw out the true essence of the project. MUMA’s projects seek a sensitive response to their context with rational, strategic decisions informing the plan. Each project pursues an ongoing fascination with light, views and composition and an interest in engineering and the crafted use of materials – interests explored within our work at the Whitworth.

MUMA

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Detail

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A key aspect of the project was to make the collection more accessible, and to make the public aware of this. The Study Centre provides a place to access the collection and incorporates archival storage. Located beneath the Landscape Gallery to the north-west of the extension, it forms one side of the garden court. Its generous window, 13.5m long, is positioned along the main entrance route from the park.

The deep corbelled brick reveal visually reinforces the Landscape Gallery’s heavy, sculpted brick mass and provides shade to control light levels and glare. An array of stainless-steel fins forms a brise soleil, and an electrically operated internal fabric blind provides additional control.

Passive environmental strategies include the use of thermal mass (through the concrete construction) to regulate temperature, and hygroscopic lime plaster finishes to moderate humidity.

Ventilation is via earth tubes: air is drawn in under the carved stone seat that runs the full length of the window, then routed via earth tubes to the Study Centre.

MUMA

Materials board

096_MUMA_4_MATERIALS_EM_AJW_151009_cropped

  1. Smooth red clay facing brick, bespoke ‘Whitworth’ blend, Northcot
  2. Bespoke faience ‘slub’ and ‘stitch’ units with bespoke glaze mix, Shaws of Darwen
  3. Purbeck Grub stone, 220 grit honed finish
  4. Purbeck Grub stone, flamed finish, both supplied by WJ Haysom & Son/Lander’s Quarries
  5. Shot-peened 316L grade stainless steel
  6. Ceramic frit to bespoke pattern
  7. Mirror frit to bespoke pattern, both MBM Konstruktionen
  8. Ground and polished precast terrazzo floor tiles and skirting, Andrews of Leeds
  9. ‘Freestyle’ 50 x 50mm vitrified mosaic tiles with matt glazed surface, Swedecor
  10. Corian, DuPont
  11. Oak-veneered wall panelling with Flamepro class 0 intumescent lacquer, matt finish, CW Fields & Son
  12. Purbeck cap stone, honed, Lovell Purbeck
  13. 220mm-wide oak floor boards, white oil finish, Ted Todd
  14. 304L grade stainless steel, mirror polished finish, TP Aspinall & Sons
  15. Stainless-steel handrail, Arkoni
  16. In-situ fair-faced concrete
  17. Stainless-steel floor and soffit grilles
  18. Topakustik Plank type 5/3, maple veneered finish
  19. Royal Forest Pennant natural sandstone paving, Bixslade Stoneworks
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