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Manchester's higher education district: World-class academia but what about the architecture?

The present Manchester University was formed in 2004 when UMIST and the former Manchester University merged. MMU was created in 1992 through the merger of a number of colleges including Manchester Polytechnic. Other institutions include the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester Business School. There is no doubting the high academic standard of these institutions, but does the architecture measure up to expectations?

The centrepiece of Manchester University is the magnificent Owens Building on Oxford Road. With its neo-Gothic style architecture, it looks like a recreation of medieval Prague. It has all the pomp and grandeur of a castle, and is probably the building that features most often on postcards. The university moved to this location in 1873. The building was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of Manchester Town Hall.

The present Manchester University was formed in 2004 when UMIST and the former Manchester University merged. The logo includes the year 1824 when the Manchester Mechanics Institute, later UMIST, was founded. Owens College became the Victoria University in 1880.

Oxford Road is not just the main route into Manchester's southern suburbs, it's also the main artery through Manchester's higher education district. The new uniified Man Uni campus can be seen on the campus maps put up following the merger in 2004. It has the shape of an upturned boot, the foot in the upper right being the former UMIST or North Campus, the rest extending along Oxford Rd.

The maps show only the buildings that belong to Manchester University campus. From the 'toe' of the boot just a stone's throw from Manchester Piccadilly Station down to the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Rd is a distance of almost exactly one mile - as the crow files. The width ranges from one third to two thirds of a mile.

It's interesting to note that the former UMIST campus straddles the Piccadilly to Oxford Rd railway viaduct. It's now part of the unified Manchester University campus which straddles the Mancunian Way. The MMU campus is also divided in two by the Mancunian Way.

Until the 1950s, Manchester University campus didn't extend very much beyond the Owens Building, which stood close to the huddled 19th century dwellings in Chorlton-on-Medlock to the east, and Hulme to the west. In the 60s the slums were cleared and the campus grew larger and larger. The UMIST campus south of Whitworh St was also extended to the south, beyond the railway viaduct and River Medlock, taking over former industrial districts.

It's interesting to look at the 1945 Plan for Manchester, which foresaw a large university precinct full of grand buildings in a unified 'inter-war civic' style. Instead, the university expanded in 'higgledy piggledy' fashion, with an assortment of post-war buildings of all shapes and sizes. Some of the campus has a 1950s feel, for instance the buildings on Brunswick St, the students union building and Moberly Hall.

Meanwhile the former UMIST campus or Norh Campus combines the original building from the 1890s, with an extension opened in 1958, but looks much older. To the south of the railway viaduct is a case study in 1960s style architecture. A former industrial building has been retained with its superb portico.

There are also many outlying sites such as Manchester University's Jodrell Bank and MMU's site in Crewe.

Since the merger, Manchester University has embarked on an ambitious programme of expansion, with many bold new buildings. The Maths Tower, in my opinion one of the most interesting buildings from the 1960s, was removed in 2004. I understand it's tall, slim profile was not suitable for handling the large number of students in the new university, but it had probably the best vantage point over Manchester City centre.

Owens Park and Moberly Hall residential tower blocks were to have been demolished, but have apparently been saved. An old red brick school building on the corner of Dover St and Upper Brook St was demolished. I know of no photographs or other record of it.

New structures have been inserted along Oxford Rd and Upper Brook Street, adding further complexity and disunity to the architectural face of the campus. The buildings facing Upper Brook Street with their jutting rectangles look similar to the Civil Justice Centre. As for the building on Oxford Road, the closest resemblance that springs to mind is with petroleum storage containers in Trafford Park.

MMU has carried out some interesting conversions of blocks dating from the 60s and 70s. The Royal Northern College of Music has an impressive new extension fronting onto Oxford Rd.

So does a beautiful campus make for a beautiful undergraduate experience? It's interesting to compare with other campuses I've experienced: Trinity College Dublin, with its manicured, 18th century campus preserved like a time capsule in the heart of the city, yet sequestered from it. Or Dubai Academic City, a newly created zone in the desert miles from the old centre.

I have to say I prefer Manchester's sprawling and chaotic academic district with its constrasting assortment of buildings. Chaos and disunity are far more interesting to me than harmonious post-card prettiness and it is far better to be in the heart of the city than way outside it. As you wander round Manchester's university district, you always seem to discover something new, some hidden corner, or some interesting building you never noticed before.

Whether we're talking about academia or architecture, in my opinion complexity, diversity and an element of surprise are much better than conformity, uniformity and predictability.

Comments received:

Dear Mr O'Rourke,

The situation with the Owens College / University was more complicated in fact: From 1880 to 1903 & 04 the Victoria University of Manchester and Owens College were both in existence as colleges could affiliate to the university though Owens was the only one a first, then the colleges at Liverpool and Leeds joined. In 1903 the government reconstituted University College Liverpool and Yorkshire College at Leeds as independent universities: about a year later the Victoria University of Manchester and Owens College were merged. (You can't really put in so much detail.) In 2004 the campuses were said to be not 'north' and 'south' but rather Sackville Street Campus and Oxford Road Campus though the N and S still get used quite a lot. The growth of the University area southwards began with the Arts Building south of Lime Grove (now named after Samuel Alexander); the area of huge scientific laboratories east of Oxford Road began in the mid-1950s with Electrical Engineering (now Zochonis). There was an ambitious plan for development in the 1920s which could not be continued after 1936/37 because of WW2 and then there was growth after the war on the western side, e.g. Dental Hospital and University Library.

Yours sincerely

John Canner

Thanks very much for adding this extra detail and correcting anything that was possibly misleading. My main aim is to put across my impressions and opinions and I know I don't always get my facts 100% correct, so thanks very much indeed for your contribution

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-09-22

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