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Manchester School of Art; supporting a multidisciplinary approach
03 Jan 2014

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios got creative with concrete for its Manchester School of Art building. But really, it's all about leaving blank spaces that students can fill up with art

Creative graduates will probably end up working somewhere with a warehouse-studio aesthetic sooner or later. Thanks to Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios' (FCB) raw concrete and steel design for the Manchester School of Art, they get can acclimatised to it early on.

In the interests of interdisciplinary working and idea-sharing, the new £23.6m building is open plan, with a lively four-storey entrance atrium that links departments. A fully exposed concrete frame forms the basis for the interior, creating a factory-like feel, animated by steel truss bridges and stairs criss-crossing the vast space. These are lined with solid oak, adding warmth and colour to the industrial environment, and highlighting the connections between different spaces – an important part of the architectural concept.

"The collaborative atmosphere is cultural, and the building supports that agenda by promoting visual connectedness and increasing the likelihood of happenstance encounter," says Tom Jarman, partner at FCB. "More importantly, the school is configuring its programmes to recognise and credit multi-disciplinary projects in a way that is quite unusual in an art-school context."

The concrete shell itself is given subtly different treatments; most surfaces have a smooth, light-reflective finish, while the stair cores have a rough sterling board texture, and a number of columns are decorated with a floral relief pattern. This is derived from a wallpaper design by Lewis Day, designed in 1886 while Day was a tutor at the school. That is about as decorative as it gets, however: as Jarman explains, it is up to the students and their work to add colour and vibrancy.

The exterior is also designed to be a backdrop to the school's creative activity. A simple grid of black anodised aluminium and glass is mirrored in stripes to give the facade a graphic quality, but mostly transparent as a shop window to the striking inner structure and artworks. Its aesthetic, describes Jarman, links to the 1960s tower next door, while creating a vertical gallery space, fitted with facilities like double-height doors and a generosity of space that hopes to promote students to think big.

"The ambition for the scale was to encourage the possibility of creating large works and bold output from the students that would hold their own in such an environment," he says. "The first end-of-year show this summer was evidence that the scale shift was beginning to come. They are using the space in really imaginative and wonderful ways already."

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