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Manchester School of Art by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

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Stirling Prize 2014: If this building reflects how learning is now an industry, it also expresses energy and buzz in its quest to encourage interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation, writes Rowan Moore

The vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, John Brooks, is keen to prove me wrong. In a too-casual remark in the Observer, I wrote that ‘with its glass box exterior and thumping atrium’, the Manchester School of Art, ‘embodies too much the modern tendency to make places of learning resemble office buildings’. So, with Keith Bradley of FCBS, and the dean of the school, David Crow, he takes me on a tour.

Not that he dispels the impression that higher education is now considered business. ‘We’re preparing for the world of the market,’ he says, and talks of being ‘sector leading’ and ‘sweating assets’. In particular he is responding to the loss of a £100 million government grant, to be made up by student fees: ‘We’re in a very, very different free-market situation. We have to invest in world-class quality if we’re going to succeed.’ He seems to embrace this new world with enthusiasm, and expresses his joy at the sheer number of students he sees, each worth at least £9,000 a year to the university. He does, however, stress the university’s commitment to the humanities and arts, at a time when others are cutting back.

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Crow, for his part, describes the vision of the School of Art. It is about making the cross-fertilisation of disciplines - so often a pious hope of colleges - a reality. So the building’s main task is to support his aspirations, and the imaginations of his students, within the pervasive ideology of productiveness.

The school’s studios form a dramatic, multi-level landscape of decks and galleries where departmental territories are not precisely defined, and where students of different disciplines can see each other at work, exchange ideas, and make use of each other’s specialist equipment. Some are sitting at computer screens, some attaching fabric to tailor’s dummies. A group just starting their 3D design course are trying to do something interesting with cubes. The students look sometimes exposed, but say they are at ease in the wide-open spaces. There are some complaints about the stresses of hot-desking, which means often having to find their spaces anew, each day.

The atrium I called ‘thumping’ joins the studio block to a reclad 1960s tower that is also part of the school. It is traversed with stairs and bridges, with exposed steel structure and timber balustrades, whose enlarged landings can also act as crit zones and exhibition spaces. Large installations - such as sculptures or bolts of textile - can occupy the voids. The bridges, says Crow, are ‘metaphors’ of the interconnectedness of the school.

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So it’s simplistic to call it an office. It has something of Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, inasmuch as it is a big frame for activity and transformation. Crow is happy if it’s thought industrial. ‘It’s not supposed to be pretty’, he says, ‘it’s a factory.’ Brooks is also keen to stress its exceptional value for money - at £1,300/m² it is much cheaper than any other Stirling contender.

The Manchester School of Art, then, is a response to the tough conditions of funding, which expresses energy and buzz. Is anything lacking? Yes: intimacy, the shaping of spaces, architectural artistry. It doesn’t favour contemplation or nuance, which, surely, are also part of education in art.

The thrusting stairs and bridges could, for example, vary their scale and force and be more hospitable - as they are they threaten to shout out all but the boldest exhibits. External courts and terraces could be less harsh. But, if it lacks the material and spatial richness of university buildings in the past, or of the LSE’s much more expensive Saw Swee Hock student centre, the school of art is an achievement. In an environment where many more buildings will be built under similar conditions, it is also an important one. 

  • Rowan Moore is architecture critic for the Observer
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