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Alan Turing Building

Phil Griffin asks if this is the best new piece of architecture at the university and why should that be?

Published on March 11th 2008.


Alan Turing Building

A few old fashioned blackboards have appeared on the walls of the new School of Mathematics. They were salvaged from the old Maths Building, the slim 16 storey tower on Oxford Road that the newly inaugurated University of Manchester chose to demolish back in 2004. Despite faults and limitations the old building (by architects Scherrer and Hicks, 1968) was much loved by staff.

The Alan Turing Building on Upper Brook Street by architects Sheppard Robson is the best new building on campus. Frankly, despite the building surge, there isn’t much competition.

The blackboards are a bit of a gesture of defiance. Likewise, the green dralon sofa and studiously non-designed coffee table that some wacky astronomer has installed on the elegant glazed bridge in the new Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics. Like Patrick Moore crashing London Fashion Week. Both these schools are joined by the Photon Science Institute in a new building named after Alan Turing, the man who broke the German Enigma code in the Second World War and then went on to develop computing at the university.

The Alan Turing Building on Upper Brook Street by architects Sheppard Robson is the best new building on campus. Frankly, despite the building surge, there isn’t much competition. At its inception on 1 October 2004 the new University of Manchester under President and Vice Chancellor Professor Alan Gilbert had a buildings’ budget of £350m. There wasn’t an architectural competition in sight. This, in a university whose main building is by Alfred Waterhouse, and that jointly, along with Manchester Metropolitan University, runs Manchester School of Architecture. It appears that great architecture is not high on Professor Gilbert’s list of priorities. Martin Amis aside perhaps, value for money clearly is.

Last week Professor Gilbert joined Sir Howard Bernstein to introduce us to City South, the re-branded area of city previously known as Chorlton-on-Medlock. The universities and neighbouring teaching hospitals bristle with cranes and construction workers and no such folksy old neighbourhood name properly conveys the sheer intellectual fireworks of it all. City South it is then, and it has its own video, the first shot of which is the Alan Turing Building. Its push-me pull-you cantilevers lift it out of the ordinary. What with architect Denton Corker Marshall’s open drawers at the high profile Civil Justice Centre down the road, Manchester is cantilever city.

The Alan Turing Building is in three parts, divided by two streets - one exterior one interior. It has a louvered canopy incorporating photovoltaic panels and the outside is largely zinc, with elongated window-slots. Each of the three boxes is sliced horizontally and upper stories push and pull, creating a pleasing rhythm.

There is no discernible front to the building, which effectively turns its back on Upper Brook Street. This main commuting artery is now reduced to a more-or-less lifeless traffic corridor comprising the shamefully abandoned and crumbling Grade II*-listed Welsh Baptist chapel by Charles Barry, a bunch of very high-end car showrooms, and twentieth century council housing. This weird mix seems to evolve in cities world-wide. Low-cost sheds on high-value sites stuffed with German and Italian cars there to be ogled by grid-locked commuters. At least the Alan Turing Building has a couple of fully glazed teaching rooms at ground level and clear views into the full-height atrium, which allows some animation.

Clearly the university sees the Alan Turing Building more as enclosure than gateway. Sheppard Robson has handled this condition rather better than might have been expected. The building takes up its site with comfortable scale. The over-flying louvered canopy helps to make it light on its feet. The open street leads through to University Place, the as yet unfinished key element in the university’s master plan, by architect Jon McAslan and Partners. This sets out to emphasise the west-east grid that connects Cambridge with Oxford, across the campus, running from Cambridge Street, across Oxford Road and through to Upper Brook Street. It appears that open spaces are being emphasised and treated with quality. There are some funky buildings including the multi-story car park on Cambridge Street (which, I confess, I’ve grown to like) and the Electro-Acoustic recording studio.

The Alan Turing Building is quality work by Sheppard Robson. It defines the campus on Upper Brook Street. My problem is that the building does not herald the campus so much as enclosing it. It is difficult to understand what an ‘open’ campus can now be. Is it of the city, or separate from it?

There’s an awful lot of building going on, commissioned by the universities and hospitals. I am concerned that newly branded City South is more, not less exclusive. Education and health are vital to us all. When the current generation of building work is complete, will I feel that MMU and the University of Manchester are more or less a part of the city? I feel it is important that when all of the money has been spent, I am part of the outcome.

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AnonymousMarch 11th 2008.

It's a bit annoying that they have such a nice new maths building when I spent my entire degree either in the really awful old tower block or in portacabins, whilst they built it!

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