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Phil Griffin longs for dreaming spires in Manchester

Do the new student residences pass the test?

Published on March 3rd 2010.


Phil Griffin longs for dreaming spires in Manchester

Universities used to build Halls of Residence. These were the Ivory Towers, the cloisters and courts of gilded youth and perpetual summer. Gone are the days. Nowadays students are privately farmed by specialist companies. Rooms en suite, kitchen sitting room communal, rent inclusive. Cosy.

Students, most of whom appear to have found more sun this summer than I did, are happily stocking fridges and swapping rooms up and down blocks One Two and Three. (Could they not have been named for Manchester notables such as Wilson, Cooper Clarke and Curtis, say?)

The largest such accommodation provider in the UK is Unite, a Bristol-based company with 37,000 customers. During the summer Unite bought Parkway Gate from Downing, the developer of the three towers containing nearly 800 beds, right by the Mancunian Way at the top of Princess Parkway.

You’ve probably noticed them, curling around each other in a gently rising spiral. One is largely glass, another pale aluminium panels. The third and most striking is clad in Cor-Ten, the rusty steel much loved by architects and American sculptor Richard Serra. (The assembly is reminiscent of Serra’s Fulcrum, a three-part sculpture behind London’s Liverpool Street station.)

I’m told the buildings cause problems for the Red Bricks, the 1960’s council housing on the other side of the Mancunian Way. They reflect traffic noise from the elevated road back into the low-rise streets.

That’s a pity, because for the rest of us, I’d say the impact of these buildings on the city is pretty positive. Students, most of whom appear to have found more sun this summer than I did, are happily stocking fridges and swapping rooms up and down blocks One Two and Three. (Could they not have been named for Manchester notables such as Wilson, Cooper Clarke and Curtis, say?)

Basically, Parkway Gate is a hotel. Front doors cluster in lift lobbies. Behind each are four to six en suite rooms running down one side of a corridor that leads to a kitchen sitting room. Each tower is sixteen naturally ventilated stories. Ian Simpson Architects designed the scheme.

There’s a bike store, laundry and common room on the ground floor of the block closest to Mancunian Way. This is the most architecturally worked of the three. Being Simpson, it is largely glass. Windows onto the street are printed with academic nouns; physics, mathematics, medicine. I’m not sure what, if anything, this achieves, being to my eyes neither legible nor decorative, informative nor practical. The interest in the whole complex is in the shape and disposition of the towers. I’d bet the architect wanted to twist the roofs through one more plane, but that money wouldn’t allow. Each of the towers uses the same cladding system, incorporating the different panels; powder painted aluminium, glass and Cor-Ten. Cor-Ten is the product name of a steel alloy that doesn’t need painting. What looks like rust is a protective layer that forms when the material oxidises. It is extremely durable and very colourful, except we don’t always recognise its vivid orange as a colour at all. We don’t always see beyond the association with rust.

On the other hand, I doubt we’ve ever seen Cor-Ten on this scale before. Especially on the north and south elevations where it forms an almost unbroken surface. It isn’t native, and it isn’t brick. Rust, however, signals decay, as brown leaves signal winter. It takes the sun in September to lift the surface and soak it in colour.

One glass building with a dash of red, one neutral grey, one bright orange (depending on the light). The central courtyard has a triangular bench and trees. Not much of a place for gilding, more for bottle tan. The foyer and admin office is a single storey and forms an enclosure with a retail unit not yet let. The flat roof of the admin block will eventually be flooded to form a reflecting pool (in a five star hotel it might have been the swimming pool deck) that will bring more light into the space. It’s all neat stuff on a budget (£29m). For a city whose student sector is a big deal, Parkway Gate is a significant building.

I just wish it wasn’t quite like this. I don’t have a quarrel with anyone, not the developer, nor operator. I don’t have a grouse with Ian Simpson Architects since the scheme appears to me to have real architectural merit.

It is just that I wish student life hadn’t drifted this far from the Dreaming Spires. Or from Arne Jacobson’s St Catherine’s College Oxford (just extended by Manchester architect Stephen Hodder), or Hull University’s Lawns Halls (just listed) from the 1960’s by Gillespie Kidd and Coia, or Denys Lasdun’s Ziggurats at the University of East Anglia, or indeed Whitworth Park Manchester by BDP.

Universities will never build student accommodation again. Let alone prestigious architectural commissions. Today’s students want to live close to the land hungry city centre in newly built en suite rooms for about £100 a week. Where is the money for generous architecture in that? Perhaps we should be teasing out architectural originality instead. Maybe we should be stacking up ship’s containers on open steel frames, or tucking undergraduates up in inflatable honeycombs, or stringing them out in trailer parks. Or squatting them in unsold city apartments. Right here and now I’d guess that Parkway Gate is as good as it is going to get.

This article was first posted 30/9/2008 and has been re-edited for the new Manchester Confidential.

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Rory McLoughlinApril 8th 2010.

Better that students are acommodated here than driving all the families out of Withington!

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