In Pevsner’s South Lancashire edition of ‘The Buildings of England’ series, his judgement of building development at the Victoria University of Manchester was predictably harsh: ‘Architecturally it is a sad record,’ he trumpeted. This judgement was of the late 1960s, and in any case was limited to the previous half-century, but Pevsner was correct in his criticism of the university’s record of building procurement; whereas other northern civic universities had had the wit to commission the progressive practices of the day such as Spence, Lasdun, and yrm, Manchester patronised local worthy-but-dull firms (with the notable exception of Cruickshank and Seward). Moreover, such buildings were deployed within Hubert Worthington’s depressingly uninspired axial masterplan.
Such is the less-than-stimulating context for Stephen Hodder’s brilliant new Career Services Unit at the northern edge of the university precinct. Hodder has been ill-served by the subsequent masterplanner, Austin-Smith:Lord, which blighted both eastern and western boundaries of the campus with multi-storey car parks, one of which, an indescribably banal affair by FaulknerBrowns, looms menacingly, adjacent to Hodder’s site.
Although sited originally within Wilson and Womersley’s Precinct Centre, the csu, founded in 1972, is now a limited company, and quite separate from the university. Offering nationwide careers advice to undergraduates and graduates, the unit also designs and distributes self-searching software for university careers advisers. Hodder’s 1995 competition-winning entry sought to bring the csu, then operating from two sites, on to a single campus location.
The brief was straightforward: the building had to meet the dual requirements of designing and delivering a sophisticated careers service with its associated software, while at the same time catering for sales and distribution. There was also need for meeting rooms and ‘executive’ suites remote from production areas. In lesser hands, such an apparently undemanding brief could well have led to ‘generic’ office typology; but what distinguishes Hodder’s solution is its uniqueness, a highly crafted building which responds imaginatively to the brief and enriches its environs.
The site is adjacent to other central facilities: a cuboid, brick computer centre designed by Building Design Partnership in the late 1960s, and a much less assured information technology centre designed by the same practice almost two decades later. To the west lies the undistinguished Roman Catholic chaplaincy, also clad in unremitting smooth red brick.
Hodder’s masterstroke has been to use his building as a catalyst to stitch its three neighbours together into a convincing collegiate courtyard typology, a simple and obvious device for this urban campus which architects from Waterhouse to Grenfell-Baines had attempted previously with varying degrees of success. Not only does the csu building define the courtyard, it also creates new ‘thresholds’ by leaving minimal gaps between itself and its neighbours. This transforms a mature but previously exposed area of planting into a quiet oasis, a welcome relief in this harsh urban environment, and a valuable model for informing subsequent infill buildings on the campus.
Having established a courtyard from two three-storey linear blocks at right angles, Hodder seizes upon the interface as a ‘knuckle’ to define an entrance from Clifford Street at the ‘hard’ northern extremity. The ‘soft’ side to the south provides a fitting climax to the route through the lush mature landscape of the courtyard.
The csu is a building of modest size which responds to a broader urban context of heroic scale, but also to the more intimate presence of the courtyard, which the building itself defines and creates. Hodder has solved this apparent conflict by invoking two familiar devices: a reinterpretation of the English collegiate garden wall, and a dramatic ordering of building elements to generate elevations of differing scale to address a hard, urban edge and a soft, intimate courtyard.
To the north, these two devices reinforce each other: the one-storey- high wall in precast concrete offers a convincing podium to superincumbent large-scale elements. Open-plan offices at first floor form huge cantilevers hovering over the free-standing wall at ground level. The wall is interrupted by a recessed main entrance, and by the surprising intervention of a structural glass bay window, marking a discrete ground-floor meeting room. Directly above this is an unrelieved, rendered two-storey gable which engages with perhaps the most surprising device within this whole composition, a massive two-storey porte-cochere formed from two planes at right angles to mark the entrance route. This brings to mind the similarly scaled ‘propylaeum’ used by Le Corbusier to mark the entrance at Cite de Refuge, Paris (1929- 3).
Internal elevations call upon a further range of devices to respond to the intimate scale of the courtyard and its mature planting. The south- west elevation is expressed as a two-storey rendered facade with two louvred strip windows per floor, whereas the south-east elevation rings the changes: projecting masonry piers at ground level mark the structural grid, while the first floor is cantilevered on exposed in-situ reinforced concrete barrel vaults. Obscured from view at close quarters, a recessed ‘attic’ storey produces the illusion of a two-storey building.
Nevertheless, this admirable response to two apparently conflicting contexts has not compromised what is a rigorously ‘thematic’ building. A limited range of materials and ‘motifs’ has been successfully reiterated throughout; most potent are the ‘twin’ strip windows within a white rendered facade. These incorporate adjustable louvred shading devices on the southern elevations; the upper window is a clerestory at ceiling level allowing natural cross- ventilation at high level, and preventing the glare of light reflected from the exposed concrete barrel-vaulted ceiling (the exposed thermal mass also contributes to thermal comfort). The lower window is placed to afford views from a seated position; reduced sill and head levels add a satisfying sense of scale so rare in similar building types.
Entrance to the hard urban side of the building is via a carefully organised ‘promenade’ through the massively scaled porte-cochere as a prelude to the three-storey-high foyer. A straight-flight stair engages with landings and bridges to give access at each level to linear offices, but also to dedicated meeting rooms in the ‘knuckle’: at ground floor it embraces the garden wall and the intervention of a glazed bay, while at first floor it addresses the blank wall of the porte-cochere. This latter gesture makes little sense on plan but in reality offers oblique views of the city, while reflecting an ever-changing light as the day progresses. A glazed re-entrant at roof level enlivens a potentially dark corner of the entrance hall. The entrance also reads as a transparent interface between the two associated linear blocks, with dramatic views from a potentially hostile exterior to the calm of the quadrangle within.
Open-plan offices address the urban edge, with associated cellular offices overlooking the courtyard. Circular reinforced columns offer a single free span to the offices and support in-situ barrel-vaults at 1200 centres with 3m cantilevers to the building’s periphery. Cross-ventilation is maintained between the cellular and open offices by an ingenuous perforated metal screen between the partitions and the soffit of the barrel-vault. The second floor is of much reduced width within a delicate steel portal frame springing from the concrete columns beneath. The resultant set-back allows for the generous roof terraces offering yet another reference to Corbusian precedent.
The detail is equally rigorous; reiterating formal explorations at Hulme surgery and his celebrated Centenary Building for Salford University, Hodder seizes every opportunity to express each layer of the building’s fabric. The ‘garden wall’ is expressed as a thin, non-structural concrete cladding which oversails the building, and gables are expressed as free- standing planes visually discrete from their adjacent walls. Roof glazing forms a void between the free-standing garden wall and the building proper, and drains into an ingenious concealed gutter within the wall itself.
Mancunians rightly take pride in their building stock, to which csu is a distinguished addition. But at another level, it offers a convincing paradigm for re-ordering our damaged urban fabric and clearly marks another significant step in the development of Hodder’s oeuvre.
Peter Fawcett is professor of architecture at the University of Nottingham
The first design team meeting was held sitting around a small cardboard model. This model became invaluable as this is a building in which plans or elevations do not describe the interlocking of the bent plate forms.
It was decided that the building would not be air-conditioned but that the floor structure would act as a heat sink. The ceiling then had to make a visual impression, and gentle curves were chosen to create a relaxed, calm form.
Part of the structure’s responsibility was to ensure that the rhythm of the 1:2 module was consistent outside and in. The form of the floor plate was determined by the need to transfer loads first to the grid lines and thence to the columns. The thickening of the slab to create the required lever arms was achieved with a curved form, which was splayed to give a minimal cantilever edge support to the cladding above. The curved form also expresses the way the load flows from the centre of the arch to the springing or central beam. Careful detailing with shadow gaps at the junctions of columns and floor ensured a clean soffit.
The roof is supported on structural tees 76mm x 64mm and 3.25m high, making a height-to-width ratio of 42. These tees are effectively hidden within the W20 glazing and allow the roof plate to float across the vertical folds. A lightweight roof construction allows the trees to be minimal. Careful detailing reduced any eccentricity.
The treads of the main access stairs were bolted onto the wall using long bolts, post-tensioned to 5 tonnes per bolt in order to clamp the treads securely to the wall.
Stairs to the cores were moulded to express their nature from below as well as above using a sawtooth reinforced concrete stair.
Darryl Blackwood, Blackwood Structural Design