In creating a unique digital art school for Manchester, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios enlivened windowless facades with a giant LED screen displaying students’ work, surrounded by bespoke, pleated aluminium. James Parker reports
The Manchester Metropolitan University School of Digital Arts (SODA), opened in November 2021, with a promise of a genuinely new kind of art school in the UK. Covering a range of disciplines – but with an overriding focus on the design of screen-based activities – it has been designed to relate closely to the existing School of Art and Design next door. Also designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBStudios), the latter was nominated for the Stirling Prize in 2014.
The £35m project, says Steve Wilby, associate at FCBStudios, finds the practice taking its strong existing relationship with this client up a notch, reflecting the uniqueness of this scheme. The building covers “everything to do with the screen from apps to feature films” and relates to digital devices large and small, he says. This includes refining the design of screens to enhance how we interact with them – which in turn influenced this project. “The design is lean, and industrial, but as with the junction between your phone casing and its screen, the transitions help create a unified, seamless whole.” Here, this transition was between a giant digital screen and SODA’s protective, pleated cladding.
FCBStudios won a design competition run by the university in 2016. This is the sixth commission the practice have completed for MMU. According to Wilby, it’s the first higher education building in the country “where you can make a film, do the effects and post-production for it, and screen it, all in the same building.” Courses run here include film, animation, UX (‘user experience’) design, photography, games design, and AI (artificial intelligence).
The completed building contains a “digital innovation lab,” as well as open workspaces, green screen studios, editing suites, and a screening space; there’s also a media gallery, sound studios and production studios. At the heart of the building are a series of shared work and social areas, including a double-height ‘digital hall,’ and open seminar spaces designed to foster collaborations between students, and between staff. The top floor is dedicated to music, with a series of music production and edit suites connected via video links.
The brief was for a very open building, partly driven by the client’s agenda to “interlink the whole arts campus,” says Wilby, given the synergies between many of its disciplines. It also needed to be very flexible, given the uncertain nature of future development: “No-one knows where digital is going to be in 10 years, so we had to make the building lithe enough to cope.” The concrete frame was fundamental to this, Wilby says that it allows for potential future additions like a mezzanine to simply provide, for example, an extra 500 m2 with “no compromise.”
Site & Form
The architects’ focus was “simple, robust design,” and being as energy efficient as possible, says Wilby. The straightforward form was “basically an extruded cube, with low volume to area ratios.”
The site, on the edge of the campus, was challenging to work with – being a former car park, including a road running through it. Early in the project, the architects reviewed the masterplan with the client to “unlock” the idea of removing the road, says Wilby. This opened up opportunities for connections to the art school, as well as sending out a positive anti-car use message. It would also enable the architects to extend the form of the new building out further, giving it a stronger identity on the campus.
The concrete-framed building has been designed without an explicit ‘front or back,’ as there is a possibility of the campus being extended in future. Following the brief, the designers stripped back what would have been a larger form, “fitting in all the technical spaces, but working with the university to get a leaner building,” for example introducing hot desking and proposing shared seminar rooms and support spaces in SODA’s adjacent buildings.
Wilby says the site enabled the architects to take a genuinely fabric-first approach to benefit efficiency: “We placed the circulation core and black box studios on the south and west elevations respectively, to prevent heat gains normally associated with windows on these orientations.”
There was an interesting architectural conundrum in that due to the building containing 15 film studios of different sizes and types, around 60% of the overall structure didn’t require windows. This meant “pros and cons” for the designers, says Simon Wilby, because while avoiding windows due to overheating is a sustainability plus (and wasn’t required for the centrally-placed cinema), there was also the danger of presenting a featureless box to the community externally.
Seminar rooms have been placed on the east flank, benefitting from the connection with the art school on that side. “There are very large windows which are aligned with those on the art school,” says Simon, giving a “very visible connection between the two buildings” when students are working there.
A sense of movement
Wilby says the building was somewhat “tucked away” in a fairly dense urban context between the art school (with a new pedestrian access between) and a pub. FCBStudios arrived at a striking means to signpost it, and the work within. At the entrance (on the northern facade) is a five-storey digital light wall where thousands of LEDs are mounted, displaying the work of staff and professional digital artists, and also enabling signage.
Steve Wilby says that displaying the college’s work so visibly “will help to make wider connections, placing their work within the city.” Also communicating the “movement” inherent to the school’s work, is the pleated, mill-finished aluminium cladding whose appearance changes with the weather thanks to its reflectivity and makeup. An attempt to maintain the “exciting culture” of its art school neighbour, the composition of closely-ranged folds changes as the light changes, and produces a texture that varies depending on the angle they are viewed from. The architects “spent a lot of time getting the reflectivity right,” in the end opting for a clear (depigmented) powder coating, “essentially a clear lacquer which massively increases reflectivity,” says Wilby. They were careful to avoid overdoing it, particularly as the elevations face offices within the art school.
The “creases,” as Simon describes them, were a product of seeking local manufacturers and suppliers, and a drive to make material use as lean as possible. The designers discovered a local metal facade supplier in Stockport who could fold the material, which would minimise the gauge required. The resulting creases are at 80 mm intervals, reducing the volume of material required along with the embodied carbon of the facade. To help create a unified, seamless link between the digital screen and cladding, the architects designed an extruded aluminium ‘Y’ detail at the corners of the facade into which the pleats “dovetail neatly.” Conversely, to break down the facade at ground level, there are 30 mm joints providing a ‘banding.’
Fitting the straightforward design approach taken throughout, the light wall is designed to be low-tech, composed of flexible strands of high-intensity, full colour LED ‘nodes’ enabling a 20,000 pixel moving image. The screen is only operational when the building is open, so rather than have a blank screen, the ‘net’ of LEDs mounted on metal cladding panels has been integrated into the facade, sitting behind a perforated black metal rainscreen. Being on the north facade means that sunlight won’t interfere with the images, and the perforations assist viewing the overall image thanks to the ‘moire’ effect created. Wilby says a “lot of mock ups” were constructed to make sure that the perforations were sized correctly, both visually and to avoid wind noise.
To help create a unified, seamless look between the digital screen and the pleated cladding, the architects designed an extruded aluminium ‘Y’ detail at the corners of the facade so that the pleats “dovetail into it neatly.” Conversely, to break down the overall look, there are 30 mm joints providing a banding at ground level.
With animation and video being the order of the day, the wall’s typical energy use is likely to be 25-30% of the wall’s 16 kW rating, and thereby handled by a PV array on the roof. (The architects have provided infrastructure for a full array in future which could completely power the screen on its own). FCBStudios “reverse engineered” the screen design in terms of power requirements, working out what the PV array would be, and then sizing the screen to be completely powered by it.
The architects “fought hard” to make the light wall as big as possible, says Wilby, without adding to energy demand. FCBStudios took the normal LED distribution for a 4 metre x 5 metre screen model and “super-stretched it” (the normal 10-50 mm spacing expanded to 300 mm gaps). He explains that because the screen can be viewed from 100 metres away down the main route from the business school, it can be a lower resolution as it’s often seen from a distance. A variety of innovative ideas for the screen, such as playing classic computer games, or testing the digitising of fabrics in different wind conditions have already been explored by the faculty.
Of the 5,600 m2 interior, Steve Wilby says: “We wanted to literally remove boundaries, so that everyone is sharing open spaces.” For example, on the east flank while some similar projects might have a collection of similarly-sized seminar rooms arranged across the floor plan, the designers “asked the university ‘do you need these rooms?’” He adds: “If we were to take the walls away, you could get one very flexible 150 m2 space, and by avoiding having the circulation, increase space by 15%.”
This resulted in a pair of ‘village green’ spaces which function as collaborative, open working areas. Located at levels two and four, they provide a relief from the black box studios, as generous open areas with large windows bringing daylight in. These spaces were originally “much smaller,” but through conversation with the client, the architects “managed to shake those out.” Their generous proportions allow them to be configured in a “multitude of ways” to suit different future needs.
The two village greens act as ‘melting pots’ where students from different disciplines can interact and share knowledge; augmented by further ‘collab modules.’ The building is designed so that seminar rooms and studios for different disciplines are located next to each other, “so you get those interactions, incorporating thoughts from other parts of the school, such as fashion and fabrics,” says Steve Wilby.
A double-height ‘digital hall’ at ground floor provides informal break-out space alongside a café, foyer, screening room and exhibition space which support the specialised studio spaces. It also provides some ‘passive supervision’ externally for students with a light wall which projects light out to the pedestrian area through the glazing. There’s a gallery space on the perimeter, which can be connected to the entrance area for college events such.
A further example of the open plan approach is the staff offices, whose design is hoped to promote better connection between staff and students. In all spaces, finishes are “deliberately limited and restrained” say the architects, which allows them to be easily reconfigured, with the interior design deferring to the effectiveness of the students’ collaborative work.
The concrete frame provided important acoustic benefits, crucial in this project, and with the building being highly serviced, the architects were able to expose services to again limit the mass of the building. Wilby believes that making the building’s structure and services readable is very important in education facilities, showing how it is constructed, but also in suggesting how it could be adapted. Internally, much of the fixtures and fittings are movable.
The university’s aim was to incorporate environmental sustainability into all aspects of the campus. As well as the fabric first approach, passive design principles were also used, including high insulation levels. It is a leaner building than the brief, with both higher activity, and better environmental quality for users.
SODA features “low energy active systems,” accredited using BREEAM and an “environmental sustainability project tracker.” Carbon analysis (using the practice’s own FCBS Carbon calculator tool) produced an “upfront A1-A5 carbon” figure of 608 kg CO2/m2; the result of the lean approach to materials use. This meant only applying internal finishes where required for performance – e.g. for noise reverberation. “High embodied energy soft floor finishes” were minimised, ceilings omitted to expose concrete soffits (and services), benefitting thermal mass.
Transport distances were minimised using local suppliers where possible – such as in the case of SODA’s innovative aluminium cladding. This was designed to be demountable, and potentially reused.