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The Manchester School of Art, Manchester, UK

Issue 82 December / January 2014 : Architectural : University building


The Manchester School of Art is the second oldest art school in the country and with an alumni list that features the likes of L.S. Lowry and Thomas Heatherwick, its influence on the city’s culture is incalculable. United in one building on the Manchester Metropolitan University campus for the first time, the new structure is both functional and inspiring. With a building design by Feilden Clegg Bradley studios and an imaginative lighting design from Arup, the School’s new home was rightly shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize.



The Manchester School of Art celebrated its 175th anniversary last year and the institution boasts a history that has spanned from the Industrial Revolution to the Information Age. The faculty’s new home on Cavendish Street deep within Manchester’s university quarter is very much an article of today, but one that pays its respects to the School’s lasting legacy.

The structure, with its striking glass exterior, has been seamlessly attached to the faculty’s former home, Chatham Tower, a 1960’s block now completely reinvigorated with a new façade. Architectural firm Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios led the project, while a team from Arup’s Manchester office created the lighting design. After completion in 2013 the building was shortlisted in this year’s prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize, where the judges described the building as a hot house of creativity with a level of interaction between students of different disciplines never before achieved.  This building will change the way in which art education is taught forever.

A functional structure was required, a building that could be used and worked in readily, while firing the imaginations of those that used it.

The client’s vision was to unite the Art and Design Faculty into one building that could easily transcend different artistic cultures, everything from photography to media, to fine arts, messy ceramics, architectural studies and the subject for which the school is perhaps most famous and the reason for its founding, textiles. The building actively reflects the school and the city’s attachment to textiles and a textile print developed at the School in the early years of the last century and sold around the world can be found cast in the columns of the building.

The public access glass vertical gallery at the front of the structure links the studio space with Chatham Tower and has been termed the ‘Window on the Arts’ by the designers. The space was developed with a mind to showing off the work completed by the students, creating a ‘shop front’ style area that is constantly renewed with changing talent.

A base for student operations can be found in the Design Shed at the back of the building. It is open plan both vertically and horizontally and this area boasts seminar rooms and seating areas where students can come together to swap ideas. This area is home to many denominations of skill and the building adapts to them all beautifully. Students can be seen on sewing machines sitting next to people on Apple Macs. This is further enhanced by the ‘village green’ spaces that have been installed reflecting the character of the students who use each floor.

When it came to developing a lighting scheme for the building the challenges were considerable, particularly in the vertical gallery space and in the Design Shed, where differing ceiling heights made luminaire installation difficult. The lighting design also had to successfully balance the aesthetic and inspirational demands of the structure with the need for realistic operational requirements.

The client originally requested that LED technology be installed in all aspects of the project due to its energy saving capability and Arup responded by doing a lot of work investigating the potential LED options. LEDs were used wherever appropriate, but other lamp types such as linear fluorescent and metal halide were selected in some instances.

As the entire building, even Chatham Tower, is transformed into a gallery during the end of year shows that act as the conclusion to the university term, track lighting has been installed for display purposes throughout the building. It was also necessary for the designers to light the building in anticipation of the differing artworks that would be created and displayed, from an intricate piece of jewellery to a large canvas hanging the length of the vertical gallery and everything in-between. This had to be achieved in a range of challenging spaces in terms of geometry.

It was found, when considering the best fixtures to use in the vertical gallery, that LED spotlights were not able to provide the range of beam angles and lumen output required to showcase the wide range of exhibits envisaged within the building. Spotlights from Projection Lighting, using Xicato Artist LED spotlights installed within the Design Shed, were used principally because of their excellent colour rendering ability, but also their ease of use allowing students to adapt the lighting to their needs.

The interior of the building is extremely streamlined, the lines are straight and crisp and the differing floors and walkways glide through the open spaces as if in motion. It was originally intended that bespoke pendants would be installed in the Design Shed but it was ultimately decided by the architect that the focus of the building should be placed on the work going on inside it rather than on sculptural fixtures. Instead of pendants, Zumtobel LED slotlights were used and framed creating lines of light that flit across the building. The slotlights act to create a clean space with minimum distraction from the artwork being displayed.

The differing heights of the ceiling also posed its own problems in creating a good uniformity across the structure while maintaining the total functionality of the building. The stairs and bridges that run through the triple height spaces posed particular difficulties for the lighting designers because of the depth of the space. The strength of light required to light them would prompt the light to be too bright and hot at the top of the stairs if lit from the ceiling, so instead LED handrails from DW Windsor have been installed.

The decks of the Vertical Gallery have a wide range of ceiling heights, which prompted the lighting design to include a side illuminated solution based on Zumtobel slotlights mounted vertically and integrated within the ballustrades.

Within the Design Shed the lighting design was developed to include Siteco Novaluna luminaires with T5 lamps, recessed within the acoustic ceiling rafts of seminar rooms and ‘village greens’. ERCO Cylinder luminaires with 70W metal halide lamps have been installed within the ‘village green’ spaces in order to illuminate the double height spaces.  The overall effect is a clean aesthetic with excellent uniformity making the space usable for a wide variety of activities.

Also, in the Design Shed textured concrete ‘back of house’, staircases had to be lit with quarter landings which posed a particular challenge for Arup. To avoid having conduits ERCO Monopole luminaires were installed vertically running through holes in the concrete from the ground floor to the fourth floor. This relatively simple solution creates a fine effect and is one of the many examples of careful and considered thinking that has been applied to all aspects of this project.

At the top of the building is the fourth floor gallery space, which acts as a centrepiece to the project. The space is gloriously multi-use and can be adapted easily to suit a range of purposes, switching from lecture theatre to events space, to gala dinner venue and art gallery. 

Challenges posed when it came to lighting this space were tackled with verve. The space integrates house lighting, display lighting and event lighting to match the many demands of the space. White light boxes were especially created for the gallery taking inspiration from high-end spaces such as the Saatchi Gallery in London.

The boxes themselves measure over 8m in length and 2.5m wide and are designed to be quite simple, white illuminated stretch fabric meeting vertical white plaster board display walls creating a continuous L-shape. The objects have been impressively engineered with services passing to the boxes unnoticed, while side access panels have been installed for ease of maintenance. The boxes contain T5 batten luminaires and a 400m space has been placed between the luminaires and the translucent insect layer, creating a uniform light distribution.  A full-scale mock-up was constructed during construction to fine-tune the concept developed by the Architect and Arup.  The final effect is an impressive feature of the room that looks equally at home whether illuminated or not.

An outside roof space has also been created on the fourth floor with a covered area to counter the unpredictable Manchester weather. BEGA columns were utilised to light the area while skylights in the roof make pools of light creating an atmospheric space in the evening. An innovative solution to utilise services runs to create a covered seating area has been illuminated using IP65 rated slotlights to match the theme of lines of light prominent within the rest of the building.
The benefits of the building have quickly proved evident in results. The number of students achieving a ‘good honours’ degree  has risen from 67% to 75% in the last year and applications to study at the school have risen by 17% since the faculty moved.

“The new building gives us a clearer sense of our own identity,” commented Professor David Crow, the Dean of Faculty. “I actually have a petition sitting on my desk asking for the building to stay open until 10.30pm, the students enjoy using it so much. The Faculty is no longer compartmentalised, the open plan nature of the building encourages team work and a communal atmosphere, allowing students to meet others studying different aspects of the subject, making the students more employable in the process.”

The Manchester School of Art is the cradle for the future artistic vibrancy of the city, so it is fitting that the institution now calls such an inspiring building home. The structure boasts both architecture and a lighting scheme that is practical, usable and economical. While stirring the artistic conscious, the building encourages the full use of the student’s talents along the lines of excellence.


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