The university should not be brutal to its own Brutalism, says Jonathan Schofield

WE have a Little Brasilia in Manchester.

In fact, we should call it Little Brasilia, a far better name than the dreary University of Manchester’s title of North Campus. It is now under threat as the University is seeking a development partner for the 26 acre area, which they are dubbing ID Manchester. The University doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about the existing buildings.

It’s full of solemn power and bashed about grandeur. But above all it's simply weird...

Brasilia was the built-from-scratch capital of Brazil from the 1960s. It was a planned town from architects such as Oscar Niemeyer or, as we like to call him in the Confidential office, Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho. This attempt to build a completely Modernist city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Renold Building Manchester
A great shot of the Renold Building (1962) on Altrincham Street Richard Brook, Manchester School of Architecture

The Manchester College of Science and Technology needed new buildings in the early 1960s as it expanded. The history of the development of the body that became the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) is complex, but its earlier incarnations had been around this location since the opening of the Manchester Technical College in 1902, which is now a Grade II listed structure. UMIST merged with the University of Manchester in 2004. 

That building lies north of the railway viaduct between Piccadilly and Oxford Road Stations, Little Brasilia lies to the south. This is where concrete takes over - on the whole. Most of the buildings were designed by the architectural practice of Cruickshank and Seward in the sixties, and are Modernist in the style known as Brutalism. They, and the spaces between them, provide a lesson in the architectural fashion of the period, its joy in diverse, simple, geometric shapes, its delight in spatial planning, its glee in changes of level. You can almost hear the architects chortling as they drew.

There are standout moments. The Renold Building from 1962 is nicely described by the Manchester Modernists, quoting Mainstream Modern, as 'the first of its type in the UK – an entire building to house lecture theatres and seminar rooms. It is also one of the earliest UK projects to assume a tower and podium configuration' and is much admired for its zig-zag curtain wall, Niemeyer inspired curved roof, and Victor Pasmore mural.’

03 18 2019 Brutal North Campus Holloway Wall
The Holloway Wall on London Road

A favourite element for fans is the Tony Holloway wall, which is as noble as any medieval castle wall, and defines the London Road edge of the site. This was designed with Manchester architect Harry S. Fairhurst as an arty 'sound-buffer’ for the adjacent Chemical Engineering Pilot Plant by, yes, Harry S. Fairhurst. Fairhurst and Holloway were buddies.

Get up close to the wall and it’s impressive - ten times better than Tadao Ando’s concrete thingy in Piccadilly Gardens. It’s full of solemn power and bashed about grandeur. But above all it's simply weird, drawing you in with its stop-you-in-the-street ‘you-what?’ magnetism. Holloway was, evidently, a flexible artist and also designed stained glass in Manchester Cathedral.

The Chemical Engineering Pilot Plant, now the Morton Laboratory, is not concrete like so many of the buildings, but is really special. Fairhurst gave us a splendid essay in function and form, the building split in two, with a stirring glazed front section and pepper pot plant on the roof. This front half is ‘designed to be 'plug-and-play' so that research staff can build a large rig in the workshop, move it in, and start it up with no fuss.’

Amongst the concrete work the sweetest is the stair bridge that sweeps from the lawn (originally a bowling green) in front of the racy Barnes Wallis building to Altrincham Street and the railway viaduct above. With the landscaping and planting enhancing the grace of its form, there’s an almost Japanese quality to this beautiful and functional object.

Manchester Brutalism Chemical Plant Pilot
The Chemical Engineering Pilot Plant by Harry S. Fairhurst
03 18 2019 Brutal North Campus In Summer Part 1
Brutal North Campus, University of Manchester

So, what are the University planning? They want up to 3.5 million square feet of mixed-use space including large areas of public realm. Apparently, the focus will be all about attracting science, research, development, cultural and tech companies, and, of course, more residential space. ID Manchester is expected to generate up to £2 billion over the next twenty years and create up to 6,000 jobs.

Cities are about layers. They attain their distinctiveness from variety, not numbing conformity. This is especially true of British city centres where the Anglo-Saxon notion of property and what we can do with it results in the entertaining chaos of cheek-by-jowl buildings bringing a dizzying mix of styles.

Little Brasilia is all the better for being, for once in the UK (although we wouldn’t want too much of it), a central city area where a coherent masterplan was delivered. Ok, it might have been typically Brutalist, that expression of Modernism which seemingly ignored all context, ripping out most of what went before (although much of this area had been destroyed in World War II bombing), but it adds to the Manchester scene, and makes for an entertaining stroll.

It reminds us of the idealism of much design in the fifties and sixties. As money began to return after the war there was great civic optimism, an almost emotional desire to make our towns and cities work better for more of our populations. This was to be achieved using public money on public works, rather than chasing private investment from whichever national or global deep pocket might assist. 

Of course, the optimism was often misplaced, for instance as slums were replaced by flats destined to becomes slums again in a decade; Hulme being the most notorious example in this city.

03 18 2019 Brutalist North Campus And The Sweetest Bridge
The gorgeous stair bridge has an almost Japanese quality

There is a present threat to the the existing small park on the north side of the bridge, but if, as the University states, there will be more public realm in ID Manchester, then it should start by retaining one of the best Brutalist combinations in the kingdom. In other words, that splendid relationship between the Renolds and Barnes Wallis’ buildings, the lawn, the landscaping and that gorgeous stair bridge. Surely, the combo of the Holloway Wall and the former Chemical Engineering Pilot Plant must be retained as well.

Indeed, these structures should be made the centre-piece of any transformation, celebrated as contributions to the city scene and examples of a particular time in Manchester and UK history. Here in Little Brasilia, unlike Hulme, it didn’t all go wrong. In an area of ivory towers, almost literally given the colour of the concrete work, we can still capture that post-war mood of optimism.

Read more about the university's plans for ID Manchester here.