UMIST was the vanguard of Britain’s post-war “white heat of technology” era: electronics, nuclear engineering, chemicals, artificial textiles, aeronautics and computing. A gleaming white campus of iconic architecture, artworks and sculptural experiments, reflecting its social, cultural and scientific significance for the development of twentieth century Manchester – a narrative every bit as important to Manchester as that of the industrial revolution.
Lord Bowden’s ambitions, the aspirations of the new welfare state and the city’s own Educational Plan eventually combined to create its unique landscape given the seal of approval in the Manchester Pevsner Guide –
‘The UMIST campus has the most impressive of the post war buildings, thanks mainly to the contribution of WA Gibbon of Cruikshank and Seward’, (p 106).
It’s a complicated story – originally the City of Manchester 1945 Plan envisaged expanding the educational centre from the university site on Oxford Rd and integrating it into a new road system in a scheme drawn up by Sir Hubert Worthington, the distinguished local architect who trained with Sir Edwin Lutyens. Part of this post war reconstruction included clearing existing housing to create new academic, cultural and residential areas – in effect an entire university district filled with creative, bohemian and boffin types. However the clearances didn’t happen for another 20 years and the idea of closing off Oxford Rd to create this enclosed campus never came to fruition either, though the dream has re-surfaced on and off ever since…
Then in 1962 Lord Bowden commissioned a plan for a student village drawn up by John Sheard of Manchester architects Cruikshank and Steward, but within a year the city council, Manchester University, UMIST and Manchester United Hospitals appointed newcomers Wilson and Womersley to prepare yet another development plan for the whole of the education precinct. The pair produced a grand design to create an integrated campus with segregation of pedestrians and traffic via high level walkways linking the university to RNCM and MMU art department. This also came to nothing apart from a few walk way provisions, the ghosts of which survive along the edges of the Mabel Tylecote Building and above the Precinct centre.
The perseverance of Bowden meant that the newly founded Institute did eventually get the core of its own masterplan underway. As Richard Brook explains in his article for the Twentieth century society website–
The new UMIST campus expanded to the south of the Manchester to Liverpool railway, extending into Chorlton upon Medlock, and included a number of new buildings and conversions by various architects including Harry S. Fairhurst + Sons and Thomas Worthington + Sons, both long established Manchester firms. It was the latter who designed the uncompromising square grid facades of Staff House (1960); Hubert Worthington, son of Thomas, was responsible for the design of the original Educational Centre in the 1945 plan.
The masterplan for the campus was developed in 1960 by W.A. Gibbon of Cruickshank and Seward and it is Gibbon’s legacy that presides over the stepped site as it descends toward the Medlock Valley. Chandos Hall, the Renold Building, the Barnes-Wallis building and the Ferranti Building are all by Gibbon and all feature his trademark white concrete. He is known to have visited Brazil prior to this commission and was influenced by the work of Niemeyer, though the only real flourishing gesture is the curved stair that elegantly sweeps into the courtyard between the Renold and Barnes-Wallis buildings.
The result was what even the picky old Pevsner declares embodies a ‘sense of purpose lacking in most of their contemporaries….’ (p124)
And what this tangled web of a tale demonstrates is that UMIST lies at the centre of a series of wider plans and aspirations of the Corporation, its various planners, architects and several scattered educational institutions to match the optimistic post war mood of the nation and ensure Manchester remained at the forefront of the new technological revolution.