Jonathan Schofield's jaw drops as he walks around the MECD building at the University of Manchester
“We can make lightning with this one,” says Richard Gardner. He then baffles me, an admitted ignoramus of electrical knowhow, as he continues with animation and enthusiasm to talk about how this laboratory can generate 600,000 volts here and 800,000 volts there.
The energy generated in this room could power half of Stockport
Gardner is the manager of the High Voltage Laboratories at the University of Manchester. We’re talking in a huge room filled with outlandish machines on a long-term sabbatical from a science-fiction movie. The room is a Faraday Cage or, in other words, “an enclosure used to block electromagnetic fields". I’m on the wrong side of the bullet-proof glass protecting the scientists and engineers which makes me slightly nervous.
Manchester's 'lightning machine'
The ten-metre tall "lightning machine", as I call it, or an "Impulse Generator", as Gardner calls it, can be used to test the effects of lightning on all manner of things, motorway gantries, buildings, power lines and so on. Here lightning can strike a lot more than twice. What’s worrying me is this huge machine is attached by a thin wire with a crocodile clip to a pole almost within arm’s reach. Again I’m wondering if I should be back behind the bullet-proof glass. Then it crossed my mind I might feel a lot more secure in the Salt Fog Chamber we’d passed earlier. That tests the effect of salt on various materials, think of the metal corrosion you see at the seaside.
“The energy generated in this room,” says Gardner before we leave and almost as an aside, “could power half of Stockport.” It’s taken some time but, at last, there is a new term of reference for that southern Manchester town other than the word "viaduct".
The MECD - the biggest university building ever built in the North
The Manchester Engineering Campus Development has a name it takes some effort to remember. In fact, the name is almost as long as the building so most people refer to it as just the MECD (pronounced MEC-D). It is a monster structure in scale lying between Grosvenor Street to the north and Booth Street East to the south, while unifying older structures, such as Oddfellows Hall, with the vast new build.
It’s 860,000 sq feet in area, over and below ground, that's 11 football pitches. It is the biggest single university building in the North, possibly in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe. When MECD reaches capacity from September this year it will have a student and staff population of over 8,000, around the size of Keele University.
The length of the building, at 200 metres long, is one metre less than the South Tower of Deansgate Square is high. The volume of MECD is ten times that of the tower. There are 52 teaching spaces and four computer clusters. It's breathtaking.
A spaceship landed in M13
The architects are Dutch practice Meccanoo. They’re doing well in Manchester, with lots of projects. For public buildings, they have a Henry Ford attitude that you can have any colour as long as it’s black. Their other most notable building in the city is HOME arts centre. The excellent Aaben in Hulme shows they can do other shades as well.
The dark exterior of MECD will never be beautiful but it is always impressive. The articulations on the side and sheer bulk again remind one of a science-fiction movie in this case of a spaceship landed in M13. Given the equipment inside that’s not far off. One oddity in the design is how a plant feature, again in black, over the underground area and close to the main entrance off Booth Street bears an uncanny resemblance to Mecca’s Ka'aba.
Otto Diesfeldt, one of the architects involved, says, “We tried to bring a huge variety of technical spaces as close to each other as possible while making the student experience great.”
The Project Manager, Neil Stubbs, has been coordinating this vast scheme and he takes me around with Emma Pemberton-Eccles, the Communications and Marketing head. Stubbs wears a wide grin most of the time. He’s been working on the project for nine years as the University concentrates its estate around Oxford Road and moves out of the northern campus along Granby Row.
He should grin, all that work has paid off. Stubbs explains how it took 75 research groups to settle on a design for MECD which must provide tuition, study and pioneering research space for just about every field of engineering in the book. The range is so bewildering I could have made notes for a day and not covered all the topics covered. I would have understood them even less.
Pemberton-Eccles is also grinning. She's pleased with the awards garnered for the community engagement work which created 182 jobs and apprenticeships for local people, some of whom were previously homeless or in the prison system; and how the project awarded £60,000 of cash grants to local community groups and charities along with pro bono work with a local women’s refuge, an LGBT centre and food bank.
So how does the building work?
Well take a look for yourself, it’s open to all for a stroll through from Monday to Friday. It’s a long stroll and an uninterrupted one of 180 metres, almost the full length of the building. The clever trick here was to place an open aisle on several levels down the east side of the longest element of the building. This connects with workshops and labs to the west and the smaller structures further to the east.
But these are no ordinary aisles. They are flexible work and study areas. This is where for any casual visitor it gets exciting because these aisles are alive. Look down the length from say the Grosvenor Street end during a standard university day and you see hundreds and hundreds of mostly young people working away or socialising. You can hear brains ticking in an environment that feels right. Look again down those long aisles and despite the dark geopolitics of the here and now, you can allow yourself to feel optimistic. The activity makes you smile. This is where Diesfeldt is right about “making the student experience great”, here's the proof of the pudding.
Another interesting point about MECD is it's right on 2022 message with lots of natural ventilation, literally freshening things up. It is not a hermetically sealed building and you can play peeping Tom with it from the outside too.
Get yourself a pint in Sand Bar and sit by the window and you can watch Richard Gardner busying himself across the road in the High Voltage Laboratories when the roller-shutters aren’t down and he’s making lightning. Gardner again, “It’s great working in daylight and having the windows so people can look in. This is a university so it’s about research, it’s about teaching and engagement so the more people can see in the better.”
Everywhere in the MECD, there’s something to turn the head. The pioneering blended lecture theatres are particularly clever which combine a theatre space with, through a movable partition screen, the practical study area. So, in one interconnected area, the theoretical can be taught and then students can move straight to the hands-on experience. Meanwhile, the ceilings have been left with the plant visible which suits an engineering building perfectly, as its theme is hovering above your head if civil engineering is your thing.
The main entrance in the building off Booth Street encourages exploration of the building. There’s something almost eloquent about the broad staircase, there's a 60s optimism, as with the Bikerdike interiors in the Whitworth Art Gallery or the Royal Northern College of Music.
As Stubbs and Pemberton-Eccles point out that optimism suffuses MECD. Stubbs says, "We want the whole building to breathe teamwork and the exchange of ideas whether it's over AI or climate change. It's about facing the key industry challenges going forward. That's why the cafe here is called Collaborate because that lies at the heart of what we are doing, we want people to work together to create solutions for tomorrow's problems."
Stubbs' words are brave but correct because what this building is also about is confidence. It says, if we want a building to last a hundred years it has to be done well and be flexible enough to adapt to changes, it has to be the best it can be, it needs to be a place where like minds can meet and generate new ideas. Promenading that 180 metres, passing all those active minds, puts me in mind of my favourite quote from the city.
This is from the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1785, treat the word "men" as a generic expression.
"Men, however great their learning often become indolent and unambitious to improve in knowledge for want of associating with others of similar talents and improvements. But science, like fire, is put in motion by collision. Where a number of such men have frequent opportunities of meeting and conversing together, thought begets thought, and every hint is turned to advantage. A spirit of enquiry glows in every breast."
Those words might come down from 237 years ago but they could be the motto for this marvellous addition to town-and-gown life in Manchester.
Manchester Engineering Campus Development can be visited from both Grosvenor Street or Booth Street East.
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