Ellen Wilkinson Humanities Building – The University of Manchester

I don’t usually walk this way – so I walked this way.

I discovered the rear of building, a building formerly only known from the others side, when seen from Oxford Road.

Whilst making my way from The Gamecock to elsewhere, I serendipitously discovered the other other side.

The Humanities Building now named the Ellen Wilkinson Building.

This Building Design Partnership scheme pre-dates Wilson Womersley’s appointment as master planners for the Education Precinct but exists harmoniously with the later series of buildings. This is most likely due to the method of development before any ‘grand concept’. The incremental expansion of the University, following WWII, was largely dictated by the progress of compulsory purchase orders; this group was no exception. At the planning stages, the lack of a masterplan led to organising the wings of the buildings in an open, orthogonal arrangement. This would allow expansion in a number of directions, according to the next available site in ‘the dynamic situation’. The result was the creation of a small courtyard flanked by two five-storey blocks and a two-storey structure. All three buildings use the same pink-grey concrete. The plastic qualities of concrete were explored in both cladding and structural panels and the textural qualities exposed in the bush hammered columns, to reveal the Derbyshire gravel aggregate. The sculpted and moulded panels on the two-storey block and on the gable ends of the larger blocks were designed in collaboration with William Mitchell. The only other materials in the external envelope were the windows of variously clear and tinted glass. The window modules were set out against a basic geometry in three standard patterns and applied across the façade. This resulted in a clever interplay of vertical and horizontal expression. 

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Ellen Wilkinson was born into a poor though ambitious Manchester family and she embraced socialism at an early age. After graduating from the University of Manchester, she worked for a women’s suffrage organisation and later as a trade union officer. Inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, Wilkinson joined the British Communist Party, and preached revolutionary socialism while seeking constitutional routes to political power through the Labour Party. She was elected Labour MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924, and supported the 1926 General Strike. In the 1929–31 Labour government, she served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the junior Health Minister. She made a connection with a young female member and activist Jennie Lee. Following her defeat at Middlesbrough in 1931, Wilkinson became a prolific journalist and writer, before returning to parliament as Jarrow’s MP in 1935. She was a strong advocate for the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War, and made several visits to the battle zones.

During the Second World War, Wilkinson served in Churchill’s wartime coalition as a junior minister, mainly at the Ministry of Home Security where she worked under Herbert Morrison. She supported Morrison’s attempts to replace Clement Attlee as the Labour Party’s leader; nevertheless, when he formed his postwar government, Attlee appointed Wilkinson as Minister of Education. By this time, her health was poor, a legacy of years of overwork. She saw her main task in office as the implementation of the wartime coalition’s 1944 Education Act, rather than the more radical introduction of comprehensive schools favoured by many in the Labour Party. Much of her energy was applied to organising the raising of the school-leaving age from 14 to 15. During the exceptionally cold weather of early 1947, she succumbed to a bronchial disease, and died after an overdose of medication, which the coroner at her inquest declared was accidental.

Wikipedia

So here we are now – a significant building, named for a significant figure.

I wandered around, pale painted rectangular reliefs abutting darker rectangular reliefs. Strict window grids at a variety of heights. Warmer rounder rounded reliefs to the east, contrasting with their orthogonal cousins. A surprising courtyard contains a diminutive but charming concrete sculpture and an almost hidden exterior spiral stairway.

Sometimes it pays to get almost lost.

Mitzi Cunliffe – Owen’s Park Manchester

Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe January 1st 1918  December 30th 2006

American born, resident of Didsbury Manchester, sculptor and designer, responsible for, amongst other things, the BAFTA mask.

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Her first large scale commission was two pieces for the Festival of Britain in 1951. One, known as Root Bodied Forth, shows figures emerging from a tree, and was displayed at the entrance of the Festival. The second, a pair of bronze handles in the form of hands, adorned the Regatta Restaurant. She created a similar piece, in the form of knots, in 1952 which remains at the School of Civic Design at Liverpool University, along with The Quickening in the rear courtyard.

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Cunliffe developed a technique for mass-producing abstract designs in relief in concrete, as architectural decoration, which she described as sculpture by the yard. She used the technique to decorate buildings throughout the UK, but particularly in and around Manchester.

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Particularly this example of four modular panels named Cosmos, set in the wall of the student halls of residence in Owens Park, Fallowfield, Manchester.

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Brambell Building – Bangor University

Sited on Deiniol Road Bangor, the 1970’s laboratory building of the University is often cited as the ugliest building in Britain.

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Erchyllbeth y flwyddyn posits Mr Madge.

It was never going to win that many friends in a city of Victorian brick and stone.

The University along with the GPO have dragged Bangor kicking and screaming into the Twentieth Century, dotting the landscape with post war architecture – though try as a I might no record can be found of the Brambell Building’s history or authorship.

Suffice to say that it has survived the slings and arrows of cultural and local vocal criticism and continues to function as a scientific research centre of some standing.

Still standing.

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And as an addendum the adjacent and equally surviving Chemistry Tower seems to have weathered the winters of discontent.

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Minut Men Totems – Salford

The three concrete totem sculptures of 1966 by William Mitchell, which stand in the courtyard of the Allerton Building, University of Salford, are recommended for designation at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Historic Interest: as a good representative example of the commissioning of public artwork as an integral element of the design of new higher education colleges and universities in the post-war period, here succeeding in imbuing a distinct identity and image on an otherwise relatively plain complex.

So it seemed appropriate to cycle to Salford early one sunny Saturday morning, in an otherwise relatively plain manner in order to see the three totems.

William Mitchell was a leading public artist in the post-war period who designed many pieces of art in the public realm, working to a high artistic quality in various materials but most notably concrete, a material in which he was highly skilled, using innovative and unusual casting techniques, as seen in this sculptural group. He has a number of listed pieces to his name, both individual designs and components of larger architectural commissions by leading architects of the day.

Historic England says so, they loved them so much they listed them Grade II.

I loved them so much I listed them lovely, especially in lowish spring light, set against a clear blue sky and framed by the surrounding academic buildings.

Further info here on Skyliner

Go take a look.

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Sheffield – Arts Tower and Library

I’ve never ever been here before – my thanks to the Sheffield Modernist Society for arranging the visit, part of a walking tour of the city, the first of many, one hopes.

You can find them here http://www.modernist-society.org/sheffield/

Or possibly simply bump into them, casually walking around Sheffield and environs.

The Arts Tower is an exciting amalgam of Manchester’s CIS Tower, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and itself. A sleek slab of steel and glass, occupying a prominent site with views across Sheffield’s seven hills.

On a sunny Sunday in early April the adjoining library was alive with studying students and Modernists, attracting the odd, odd look, as we stopped and stooped to snap the odd period detail or two. It has retained much of its original character and features, deliciously elegant, almost edible chairs, some signage – and a clock.

Though the seven is mysteriously missing.

It was opened by TS Elliot.

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On 12th May 1959 – it was a Tuesday.

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The Arts Tower 12 Bolsover Street in Sheffield,  belonging to the University of Sheffield and opened in 1966. English Heritage has called it

“the most elegant university tower block in Britain of its period”. 

At 255 feet/78 m tall, it is the second tallest building in the city. It is also the tallest university building in the United Kingdom.

Designed by architects Gollins, Melvin, Ward & Partners, construction of the tower started in 1961 and lasted four years. 

Entry to the building was originally made by a wide bridge between fountains over a shallow pool area in front of the building. This pool was eventually drained and covered over when it was found that strong down drafts of wind hitting the building on gusty days caused the fountain to soak people entering and exiting the building. 

The building was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother in June 1966; it has 20 stories and a mezzanine level above ground. As its name suggests, the building originally housed all the University’s arts departments. Circulation is through two ordinary lifts and a paternoster lift, at 38 cars the largest of the few surviving in the United Kingdom.

A bridge at the mezzanine level links the tower to Western Bank Library. This building was also designed by Gollins, Melvin, Ward & Partners—the two buildings are intended to be viewed together, the Arts Tower and Library are Grade II* listed buildings.

So if you have a penchant for a tall slab with an adjoining library, set in expansive parkland on the perimeter of a dual carriageway – go take a look.