If Steve Jobs had ever designed a building, it would be like this

Remarkable contrast of ancient and modern last night, as we toured the new building at Chetham’s Music School in Manchester with the Manchester Lit and Phil Soc.

There is at present only one entrance to Chetham’s, and it looks like this:

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Tucked away in one of the most recently redeveloped parts of Manchester’s city centre, a few minutes’ walk from the Royal Exchange Theatre, this gate feels like the portal to a hidden world. Almost invisible from the surrounding streets, completely hemmed in by a one-time railway hotel and the Victorian home of the Manchester Grammar School (both buildings now both part of the school site), at the heart of the Chetham’s complex are a beautiful cluster of medieval buildings, some of the oldest in Manchester. This includes the world-famous Chetham’s Library. The overall effect is slightly monastic, rather like entering an Oxbridge college.

Then you go over a bridge and jump from past to future.

Remarkably, I knew nothing of the school’s major new building. I suppose it’s a sad reflection on our contemporary news that we hear far more about scandals than achievements. Chet’s has been in the papers for all the wrong reasons lately. I’m not saying that abuse in all its forms shouldn’t be tackled and exposed. But it isn’t the whole story. What we have here is a facility of international repute, and home to around 300 talented young people from all over the world, who have often had difficulty fitting in elsewhere and therefore regard their adopted family with great affection.

Designing the new building must have been a daunting brief. On an incredibly cramped site, space had to be found for a couple of hundred individual practice rooms and two concert halls, one seating up to 400 people and accommodating a stage the same size as Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, in order to give the pupils experience of performing under professional conditions in a full symphony orchestra. Adding to the challenge was the need to maximise daylight without compromising the acoustics of the building with a large number of exterior windows.

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The answer was a high atrium, all white plaster, oak panels and clean lines. Every little detail has been designed to minimise visual intrusion, from the banks of instrument lockers built flush against the walls to the artfully recessed lighting and the flowing sans-serif font used to carve signage. When the sun shines (not all that frequently in Manchester), beautiful parallel stripes of light are reflected from the rooftop windows onto the floor far below, evoking the image of a stringed instrument.

Open galleries surround the central atrium, which is shaped roughly like the triangular fret board on a guitar. From these, the large double-glazed windows of practice rooms “borrow” much needed daylight from the central space. The overall effect of futurist minimalism is softened by vast walls made of specially commissioned handmade bricks.

Handmade bricks based on a Roman design (the school site was once a Roman fort) bring a monastic aesthetic to what could have been a clinical space
Handmade bricks based on a Roman design (the school site was once a Roman fort) bring a monastic aesthetic to what could have been a clinical space

The aim here is to contrast the school’s rather monastic character, as a small community adjacent to a cathedral and revolving around its daily rituals, with the clean-cut aesthetic of the 21st century.

breakout-trombone

Skilfully designed breakout spaces are everywhere, and all have interesting views. As you go around the building, you are often surprised by the combination of perfectly balanced vistas combined with intimate spaces for people to gather and socialise.

The overall effect is enticing but also a bit odd, and I think this is partly due to the building’s carefully designed acoustics. You feel quite isolated from the outside world as buses pass silently just a few feet away and you quickly lose your orientation in the oddly-shaped corridors. Does this reflect something about the social world of the school as well as the physical one, I wonder?

Chethams is a true meritocracy, isolated and elitist in the best sense; a refuge for the intensely and uncommonly gifted. That has its dangers, some of which have recently been exposed and, one can only hope, institutionally addressed. At the same time, we do need such places, and there’s much to be praised in the vision of the school’s original founder and benefactor, Humphrey Chetham and those who, centuries later, have embraced the vision of making it a hub of musical excellence. It’s good to see that, in these days of mediocrity, there is still the occasional place for people to reach their highest potential in ideal surroundings.

So, I wish Chethams all the best in their rebuilding programme, both physical and institutional. It was a wonderful evening, rounded off by supper in a genuine medieval baronial hall, and you don’t get to do that very often.

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2 thoughts on “If Steve Jobs had ever designed a building, it would be like this

  1. Has Christopher Eccleston ever been in that building since he is from Manchester. That is a great looking building. I have never been to Manchester, because I live in the States.

  2. I think it’s unlikely because it’s a classical music school, and of course his specialty was drama. But it is very close to Salford, where he comes from.

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