UMIST is a unique piece of Manchester’s heritage – It should be saved

I know what you’re thinking. This is supposed to be a YIMBY page, three pieces in and you’re already joining the ranks of the conservationists? And all of this after defending Manchester’s very own world-ending, square destroying homage to Tour Montparnasse. What happened?

Look. I can explain.

As is the case with every spec of land across the city in this relentless development cycle, the site of what was once The University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) has been thrown onto the conveyor belt of regeneration to see what comes out.

Officially speaking – as of February 2019 the University of Manchester has stepped up its search for investment to deliver a £1.5 billion “Innovation District” in its place.

Scandalously uninspiring branding aside, this sets the scene for the loss of some of Manchester’s finest examples of post-war modernist and brutalist architecture.

The campus, constructed to house UMIST in the 1960s sits on the space between Piccadilly Station and Oxford Road, while its southern border backs onto the Mancunian Way. Across the vast estate is an enviable range of architecture that represents some of the very best of its style.

However its treasure trove of angular concrete brilliance has slowly degraded since the University of Manchester merged with UMIST and relocated the majority of the student base to their Oxford Road campus in 2004. In the intervening years a range of estate strategies have proposed a variety of solutions to the problem of what to do with the campus.

It’s these efforts that have led to the most recent strategy, the aforementioned…ahem “Innovation District”. Less said about that the better.

Among the general populace, brutalism is the architectural equivalent of the embarassing child that everybody tolerates, but simultaneously wonders what went wrong. Shamed into silence by their glorious Edwardian, Victorian and Georgian siblings achievements and for having the gall to place function over form and try new ideas and materials before they had reached full technological maturity.

This bias is seen in the public outcry every time a nondescript weavers cottage or warehouse is so much as touched by development, while icons like Balfron Tower in London are altered with all the subtlety of a Donald Trump press conference (and lets not even get into the disgraceful subversion of the political intentions of this style by redeveloping it into luxury apartments for the super-rich).

Brutalism is a major part of Britain’s architectural heritage, and though it doesn’t conform to modern beauty standards, that does not lessen its importance.

The jewel in UMIST’s crown, and perhaps the most likely element of the estate to be listed, the Renold Building (1962), demonstrates just how fantastically brutalism can mix function, innovation and aesthetics – while paving the way for the modern architecture that we see today.

Designed by W.Arthur Gibbon of Cruickshank and Seward the Renold Building represents one of the UK’s first efforts in combining a tower and podium element. Growing from this trailblazing base every elevation contains something to spark the imagination, and countless elements that foreshadow architectural trends to come. From the Rogers-esque glazed external staircase to the textured and angular black facade facing the square – designed to accomodate the acoustic requirements of the lecture theatres within. Not a single part of the design bores, and the visual interest continues all the way to the building’s peak, as the design concludes with a final flourish. A curved plant room that wonderfully echoes Oscar Niemeyer.

UMIST’s design brilliance doesn’t end at individual buildings either. The square that ties the area together between the grand Victorian Sackville Street building, railway viaducts and Barnes Wallis building (1964) is a uniquely serene space in the unrelenting bustle of Manchester city centre. Its sweeping concrete staircase effortlessly links the upper and lower elevations of the site, and helps preserve the green oasis that forms the below. Not only is this piece of urban planning innovative for its own time, it should provide a lesson for some of the more profit-driven modern developers too.

The Renold Building is in good company across the estate too. The aforementioned Barnes Wallis acts as an imposing and complimentary partner at the centre of the estate, embracing the square and protecting it from the elements. Even providing a nod to the past with glazing that echoes its Victorian predecessor in the Sackville Street building.

Of course it wouldn’t be brutalism without a number of functional and divisive tower elements too. Beyond Renold, the site is dotted with a plethora of high-rise elements in the iconic Maths & Social Sciences Building, Faraday Building, and Chandos and Wright Robinson Hall. All of which are exemplary examples of the principles of modernism supplemented by small touches that elevate them beyond mediocrity.

The Maths & Social Sciences, though potentially beyond saving at this point given its condition, incorporates brilliant changes in height across its form. The Faraday Building is a subversive combination of functionalism and decoration with its unique textured concrete cladding. While Chandos and Wright Robinson Hall incorporate exuberent flourishes in the latter’s angular crown and the former’s glazed staircasing.

Wright Robinson Hall & Barnes Wallis

In this regard UMIST is somewhat unique in its combination of functional modernism that isn’t afraid to dip a toe in the decorative. The Hollaway Wall (1968) on the eastern boundary of the site sits alongside the innovative Chemical Engineering Pilor Plant (1966) and both are playful and expressive additions to the site that elevate it beyond the expected tropes of the era.

The former literally acts as an artistic solution to a design problem, by insulating the site against the impact of the roads adjacent with its enigmatic and expressive offset columns. While the latter adds a splash of colour in its blue highlighted glazing, and quite incredibly, incorporates external service runs with their use represented by individual colours a full five years before the construction of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers Pompidou Centre in Paris. This alongside a liberal application of glazing that showcases the inner workings of the machinery within, a design choice that has been aped by what is in some respect UMIST’s successor, the highly impressive MECD under construction on Oxford Road.

In approaching the preservation of the UMIST estate, planners can look to a number of developments in Manchester that demonstrate that a sympathetic approach to this issue can be successful. The treatment of the Grade II listed CIS Building and Allied London’s revitalisation of Astley & Byrom House stand as local examples of how these important pieces of the UK’s architectural history can be effectively modernised to fit current standards while maintaining their character.

Allied in particular deserve significant praise for what is an sympathetic rework of a building that many developers would demolish without a second thought, and the city is better for its retention

The unfortunate irony in brutalism is that in the court of public opinion the materiality of these buildings is what lets them down. The insistence on material honesty in the style, though admirable, eventually leads to disrepair without effective maintenance. However the CIS Tower and Allied’s rebranded ABC demonstrate that given a clean, or a sympathetic reclad, modernism and more specifically brutalism stand the test of time in both form and design principles.

Beyond very specific voices (that undoubtedly do a fantastic job), the call for the listing and preservation of brutalist landmarks across Britain is often limited. Their retention is not fashionable in the mainstream, bar perhaps a certain subsect of Instagram and brilliant organisations like the C20 Society and the Modernist Society.

It’s because of this that it’s so important that when they are threatened we come together to vouch for their value. They lack the immediate decorative grandeur of earlier heritage architecture, but that does not strip them of aesthetic or historic value.

Their structural and material honesty, unprecedented ambition beyond the time in which they were built, and historic context should place them at the very forefront of public concern. After all it was a relatively short time ago that Victorian architecture was held in this unfortunate esteem, considered a remnant not worth preservation.

We would be naive to make the same mistake again, by assuming that a style’s worth is only held in its beauty relative to the standards of current architectural trends.

UMIST is a Mancunian gem, and the same energy and vigour should be dedicated to saving it as would be reserved for its Victorian counterparts.

For more information on the fantastic UMIST estate from some brilliant sources – please do visit the below links which all informed my thoughts:

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