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The Whitworth by MUMA

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The amount going on at MUMA’s Whitworth leaves you feeling as if it has added more than one extension, says Ellis Woodman

It may represent one of the best regional art collections in the country but, given its location a couple of kilometres from the city centre and the austere, not to say penitential, character of its late Victorian architecture, it is not hard to see why the Whitworth Gallery long remained one of Manchester’s better-kept secrets. However, since the appointment in 2006 of its present director, Maria Balshaw, the institution has expanded both the size and diversity of its audience dramatically. Over the course of seven years, a critically acclaimed programme of contemporary art exhibitions and a concerted effort to engage local residents saw visitor numbers more than double: a particularly impressive achievement, as the gallery stands within Moss Side, one of the poorest electoral wards in the country. In response to that success, Balshaw staged a competition in 2009 for the gallery’s expansion.

JW Beaumont’s Free Jacobean building occupies a corner of the contemporaneously established Whitworth Park but, as originally designed, greeted it with nothing more than a blank brick wall. Expansion offered the opportunity to create additional exhibition, café and education spaces but, no less crucially, to provide the building with a less guarded relationship to its setting. The competition brief suggested a site appended to one of the building’s flanks but the winning proposal by London-based studio MUMA resisted that steer in favour of consolidating the symmetry of Beaumont’s design.

MUMA has gone a long way towards unlocking the potential of Beaumont’s design

The new work is accessed from the old by way of a large opening that has been created at the end of Beaumont’s central axis, providing a view into the park from the largest and handsomest of his galleries. The ground drops towards the back of the building with the effect that the gallery level is here revealed as standing a full storey above the park. Stepping through the opening, we enter a glazed loggia that extends laterally to provide access to two projecting wings. Yet the project’s commitment to symmetry is not absolute, as the wings diverge markedly both in their proportion and degree of openness. Incorporating an education space with a café above, the one to our left is the slenderer and more lavishly fenestrated. Its ground floor is in brick, but the café maintains the highly exacting language of the loggia: a system based on the use of stainless steel hollow sections to frame full-height glazing and also to support the roof. Mirror-finished and of triangular profile, they reflect the trees that stand nearby and register our movement as we progress down the peninsular-like café deep into the park. At the far end, the volume cantilevers out beyond its brick base – providing a covered space for the education room – and terminates with an enormous tilt-up window.

View from new stair to the Upper and Lower Promenades, linking the new wings

View from new stair to the Upper and Lower Promenades, linking the new wings

As this wing explicitly relates to the park, so its street-facing partner adopts a more urban expression. Housing a study centre at ground level with a primarily top-lit gallery above, it takes the form of a brick box, very sparingly punctuated by large, deep-set windows. The gallery’s founder, the philanthropist Joseph Whitworth, endowed it with a collection of historic fabrics with the aim of inspiring the local textile industry. On the wing’s street facade, MUMA makes reference to those holdings through the introduction of areas of ‘pleated’ brickwork and white faience elements of varying sizes and spacing that the studio likens to stitched-in ‘slubs’ in textiles. An association of wall and textile is a central tenet of Gottfried Semper’s writing, strongly present in the buildings of Louis Sullivan and has more recently informed a number of Caruso St John’s projects, such as Nottingham Contemporary. By comparison, MUMA’s exploration of the idea feels a tad underdeveloped, not least because the treatment is restricted to this facade. In order that it might serve as a screen onto which images of the collection’s holdings can be projected, the opposing elevation has been left free of ornament and interrupted only by a strip window that extends for the full length of the study centre at desk height.

MUMA’s inventiveness is grounded in an impressive command of the art of construction

Taken as a whole, the project’s external expression comes across as determinedly episodic – a series of local improvisations, which subvert the fundamentally symmetrical parti. MUMA’s partners met while students in Glasgow, and Mackintosh’s School of Art suggests itself as an obvious model for that sensibility. The shared commitment to a unitary expression now pursued by architects as various as Peter Zumthor, Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster suggests quite how unfashionable such responsiveness to particularities of context and function has become. MUMA’s inventiveness is grounded in an impressive command of the art of construction: the detailing, throughout the building, is a joy. Yet, in approaching it across the park, I couldn’t help feeling that there is more going on than a project of this scale can support. Assured as the parts may be, the impression remains that three extensions have been added, rather than one.

Whitworth gallery

Landscape Gallery window bay detail air supply via slatted oak screen; honed Purbeck stone floor to bay; oak floor to gallery

A second entrance has been created on this side, accessible across a sculpture courtyard framed by the projecting wings.  The main frontage has also been made considerably more welcoming through the relandscaping of its forecourt. This has involved building up the ground to enable the removal of Beaumont’s steps and an unsightly disabled access ramp. Meanwhile, deliveries have been relocated to a new service entrance on the side street, freeing the square of any requirement to be trafficked.  As it stands on the edge of the University of Manchester’s campus and directly opposite the university hospital, the space promises to attract a still broader public than the gallery’s already diverse audience.

Assured as the parts may be, the impression remains that three extensions have been added, rather than one

Beaumont’s interior has also been well served by the restoration of the Grand Hall that extends along the main frontage at first floor level: a spectacularly proportioned room that had long been wasted as collection storage space. The creation of a new store located below gallery level has enabled its return to use as a venue for lectures and parties. Indeed, one might have wished the restoration component of the project had been more extensive. In the 1960s Beaumont’s galleries were subjected to a radical overhaul by James Bikerdike of Bikerdike Allen Partners: a scheme that introduced air conditioning behind suspended timber ceilings and a non-axial plan articulated through incremental changes of level. Strongly indebted to Scandinavian sources such as Wohlert and Bo’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, these interiors certainly rank as a period piece and conservation officers were keen to ensure their retention. Only in the rear gallery – the one that now enjoys a view of the park – has MUMA been permitted to strip Bikerdike’s work away, instituting a passive environmental strategy that has enabled the original barrel vault to be returned to view.  The suite of Bikerdike galleries in the centre of the plan therefore remain unchanged. 

While not without quality, their complete absence of daylight and complicated spatial arrangement are hardly ideal from a curatorial perspective. But the still greater frustration is the way their labyrinthine layout interrupts the building’s central axis. Stripping them out would enable visitors to see the park from the front entrance, establishing an altogether more intuitive means of circulation. MUMA has gone a long way towards unlocking the potential of Beaumont’s design. It is to be hoped that it may yet be given the opportunity to finish the job. 

The brief

With a growing national and international profile, an expanding audience (up from 86,000 in 2006 to 139,000 in 2008), an ambitious exhibitions and educational programme and an expanding collection (the collections number more than 55,000 objects, all stored on site), Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery found it had a need to expand.

The client’s competition brief expressed its aim to make the internationally important collection of fine art, textiles and wallpaper accessible to a wider range of visitors, to make better use of the existing gallery spaces and to establish a relationship with the surrounding grounds and park. It included the following quotation from a former director:

‘I have come to the conclusion that a good museum or gallery should be a place where people feel comfortable. If it stands in a garden or park, the visitors should be able to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors as a counterpoint to what is within.’ Margaret Pilkington, Whitworth Art Gallery director, following a visit to Oslo in 1932

These words struck a chord with MUMA and they underpin its design approach at the Whitworth. New visual connections to the park are created and celebrated.

Equally important was the opportunity to establish a new transparency – the intention being to break down the perceived psychological barriers created by both the formal late Victorian and Edwardian entrance and the blind, unarticulated rear of the existing building – this new transparency inviting further exploration.

  • Stuart McKnight, founding partner, MUMA

Engineer’s view

At Whitworth Art Gallery Buro Happold Engineering completed a thorough investigation of the existing buildings and systems, the conservation standards that could be achieved without active humidification or cooling and the low and zero carbon technologies that could be integrated into the project.

We used this evidence base to map the existing installations in order to understand what needed to be replaced and what could be retained, and a new building services infrastructure was integrated into the existing building, connecting the new with the old as one system.

The sustainability strategy met the challenges of increasing the building area by over 30 per cent while at the same time reducing the overall carbon footprint by 10 per cent.

A ‘slow conservation’ strategy cleverly uses the landscape and buildings to shelter the galleries and collection stores, not only ensuring visitor comfort but also preserving and protecting the artwork. The building fabric has been greatly improved for insulation, air-tightness and solar control by using the new construction to wrap the old.

This has been the first time that a passive approach has been taken to the environmental control of temporary exhibition galleries. MUMA and Buro Happold worked closely with the gallery’s curators to develop a strategy that takes advantage of the fabric of the building and the Manchester climate and that does not use cooling or air conditioning to maintain the required conditions.

The curation strategy is part of the environmental control system and exhibits will be chosen to suit the seasonal conditions and the configuration of the gallery.

The new collection storage areas at lower ground floor level replaced the old, inefficient air conditioning system with passive design techniques to reduce energy use.

The environmental conditions can now be controlled and adjusted through conservation heating using ground source heat pumps combined with natural ventilation.

  • Stephen Jolly, partner, Buro Happold

Client’s view

MUMA won the competition to extend the Whitworth in the face of strong competition – 138 other practices from all over the world. By no means the largest, most experienced or best-known of practices, its calling card was the Medieval and Renaissance galleries at the V&A, an institution with collections and aspirations cognate with our own.

We went through an incredibly rigorous selection process, particularly in terms of how we engaged our multiple audiences in the decision. We selected a long list of 10 for interview and then a shortlist of five, who were invited to develop a model and presentation to be exhibited for three months in the Whitworth. Some 30,000 people saw the exhibitions and more than 900 filled in detailed consultation forms. We worked with school groups, older residents, disabled visitors, student and academics and, of course, the Whitworth staff. A final gruelling day of interviews confirmed the wider public view, that MUMA’s proposal stood head and shoulders above the others.


The design unlocks the central axis of the building through a glorious opening in the former back wall.  The view frames a grand old plane tree and light floods into the restored barrel ceiling exhibition galleries.  They are the most beautiful exhibition spaces that I know. The promenade that wraps the back of the old building is generous and – even in our frantically busy opening week – accommodates people and lets them move easily around our much-expanded spaces. The restrained palette of materials makes for calm and elegant galleries. Unique elements, like the polished steel mullions that bear the load of the building and the super-slim brise-soleil that protects our art from excess light give a crafted quality to the whole.

The Whitworth Art Gallery is now an art space of international quality, with unrivalled study access to its collections. It is also, and just as importantly, a place where very different kinds of people feel comfortable about coming together.

  • Maria Balshaw, director, Whitworth and Manchester City Galleries


 Related projects in AJ Buildings Library

Oriel Mostyn Gallery

Oriel Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno (2010) by Ellis Williams Architects

Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire

Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire (2003) by Stanton Williams


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