Manchester has long been a powerhouse of the spoken, written, sung, shouted and occasionally snarled word, its rain-streaked industrial grandeur forged into the imaginations of everyone from Elizabeth Gaskell to John Cooper Clarke.
On a tight corner site in the heart of the city, between Oxford Road and the grade II-listed Holden Gallery, Allies and Morrison has created a building that’s very much part of that tradition. Manchester Metropolitan University’s Grosvenor East provides a new base for the arts and humanities faculty, with TV and radio broadcast studios and rehearsal spaces, as well as academic offices, classrooms and language laboratories. But it is also a landmark public space, its ground floor housing the Manchester Poetry Library, a 180-seat studio theatre, cafe and exhibition spaces.
Such diverse uses are not easily housed within one building. Many of the studio spaces required strict acoustic isolation, and there needed to be spatial separation between the public and private spaces. This 3D jigsaw was made more complicated by the wide array of functional requirements, from small cellular offices to double-height studios, with the generally larger spanned public areas on the more accessible ground floor.
The site imposed further restrictions. The main entrance is a retained 1830s neoclassical facade, which is little more than two storeys high. Allies and Morrison had to find a way to squeeze 12,100m2 of usable space on the 2,600m2 corner site behind this, without looming over the heritage portico, or the listed gallery next door.
As a result, the building’s massing is broken down with several setbacks, stacking the larger volumes on the busy Oxford Road side. This in turn required a number of transfer structures to navigate the building’s load around the big spans of the lower floors.
“The structural material needed to make those spaces work well, especially being on the busy Oxford Road,” says Charlotte Hodges, associate director at Allies and Morrison. A reinforced-concrete frame with a 5.7m-wide full-height central street formed the basis of the design. For most of the building, the grid varies between 5m and 7m, with 300mm-thick slabs cast in situ with a prefabricated reinforcement carpet.
Many of the specialist spaces and setback areas, however, required different responses. The broadcast studios, for example, are box-in-box structures, with floating slabs resting on acoustic isolators. And the double-height movement studio looking out over Oxford Road spans 8.5m.
“That was an incredibly challenging space to make work,” says Hodges. “The beams and soffits are exposed and the floor steps back by 1.5m, so it’s a big transfer structure. Throughout the building, there had to be a lot of coordination, with the drop beams, invisible beams and columns, how and where they joined.”
Invisibility is a particularly neat trick when so much of the structure is exposed. A large percentage of the concrete was specified to have an architectural finish, which required rigorous quality control from mix design and batching, to formwork detailing and reinforcement fixing, through to the pour.
A 40% GGBS mix with a high proportion of fine aggregates was used throughout, cast against MDO plywood formwork. This was double-skinned, to ensure that no fixings were visible on the finished surface. Tie holes were carefully planned in a symmetrical repeating pattern and shadow gaps have been left at column heads and wall joints. Transparent waterproof and dust sealants were applied to all exposed surfaces.
The solid masonry aesthetic continues on the building’s various facades, where the lower levels are clad in a 50mm-thick GRC rainscreen. The window reveals, corners and vents are detailed to create the impression of a more monolithic presence, in keeping with the heritage brickwork of the surrounding buildings. This is also echoed in the colour of the metal cladding of the upper floors. It perhaps looks more industrial than poetic – but then, words are something of a local industry.