Joint event with Twentieth Century Society NW Branch and Manchester Modernist Society
Saturday 10th March 2012: 10am – 4pm.
The rapid expansion of British Universities in the 1960s produced a wealth of good quality mid-century buildings, most of which are visible and accessible; some though remain hidden and tucked away.
I arrived at the rendezvous point outside Manchester Oxford Road Station about 10 minutes early and proceeded to do the usual ritual of lurking about trying to ascertain who else might be likely participants in a C20 architectural tour. By 10am – the designated meeting time – it became apparent that the gathering (I’m trying to think of a better collective noun for architectural enthusiasts) were definitely there for the purpose of visiting a series of post-war chapels and churches.
Before we set off Aidan-Turner Bishop (co-ordinator of the NW Branch of the Twentieth Century Society) ticked off everyone’s names, and Richard Brook (tour leader for the day) distributed notes. When the housekeeping had been done we set out towards the bus stop outside the Palace Hotel on Oxford Road to catch a bus down to Rusholme. This was no mean feat as there must have been around 25 of us. Our bus driver was mildly bemused but thankfully un-phased by the group filling up the top deck.
To the south of Manchester University new student halls were developed in the established and leafy suburb of Victoria Park. Two of the new halls of residence included Church of England chapels as part of their development, Hulme Hall and St. Anselm’s Hall. In each case the funding came from the CofE Central Board of Finance in London and was not a part of the University’s commission.
The bus took us 2 miles south into the suburban area of Rusholme. A 5 minute walk took us to St Anselm’s Hall, part of the University of Manchester, where the caretaker came and let us in. Our first chapel of the day was the work of H.M. Fairhurst and opened in 1961. It’s a good job the group wasn’t much bigger because the chapel was rather bijou. Any more and it would have been difficult to walk around and look at the timbered ceiling, the tapestry hanging behind the altar by Audrey Tucker, or get a good view of the frieze that runs round the top of the room. This was the work of Anthony Holloway.
One thing that struck me as a bit incongruous was the bell rope, which is used to indicate the start of a service. This hangs directly in front of the main doors into the chapel. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was tempted to give it a pull. The other was a charming framed hand-written picture that commemorated the opening of the chapel by listing all of the craftsmen involved in its construction – including bricklayers, coppersmiths and asphalters. Idon’t expect there are many instance where asphalters get this kind of recognition. So this was an unusual item and something that might be more befitting hung on a wall in the entrance to the chapel. Instead it was the inquisitiveness of one tour participant that found it on the floor, propped up against a wall.
We next set out on a half mile walk northwards to see the chapel which is part of Hulme Hall, another University of Manchester property. This was designed by JRG Seward of Cruickshank and Seward and opened in 1968. Like St. Anselm’s this chapel is in a secluded spot and would easily go unnoticed. However, it isn’t in such good condition, and a lot of discussion focused on the damp patches evident on areas of leaky roof and the cold, musty atmosphere. (Though the chapel is very clearly still a working space today).
Richard explained to us that Seward was influenced by Alvar Aalto. The nod towards Scandanavian modernism was evident in the simplicity of the space, and the positioning of windows to afford views towards trees and other greenery.
The ecumenical nature of the space means that it is absent of any doctrinal symbolism although the natural world is permitted its glory; the east window, behind the alter, frames a view of a large copper beech tree at the bequest of the Bishop who was of the opinion that ‘a view of nature was infinitely preferable to the art of man.’
Personally, I was rather taken by the interior ornamental brickwork.
After a walk through Hulme Hall to see earlier Arts and Crafts elements, as well as other late-60s additions we set off a leisurely pace up to Oxford Road and the next stop which was the University of Manchester R.C. Chaplaincy. The walk allowed time to chew over what we’d seen so far and to chat about ideas around architectural enthusiasm. It seems that the motivations behind attending the event were varied – from professional interest, a desire to find out more about parts of Manchester and its architectural heritage, filling in gaps of knowledge, and the draw of seeing places that would otherwise be difficult to access.
The group were treated to access to the archive of the University Chaplaincy in addition to the freedom to look around the tiny chapel and the library. The chaplaincy opened in 1965 and was designed by Mather and Nutter. This was not an easy commission, as the chaplaincy is sited next door to the nineteenth century Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, a grade I listed building.
It is very much a transitional scheme that is characteristic of a shift from a ‘Festival’ or ‘Scandanavian’ modern to the full mainstream adoption of International Style in post-war Britain.
The archive material proved to be a real hit. It was great to be able to see in the plans how different proposals were put forward and how the site had (or hadn’t) developed into the vision that Mather and Nutter originally proposed. The artistry of the painstakingly hand drawn elevations, filled in with water colours, were fabulous to look closely at. I’m much more used to the rules and regulations of public archives so being allowed to flick through a pile of plans was rather liberating. Such collections are few and far between, which underlines the difficulties surrounding establishing criteria for listing post-war buildings.
After stopping for a sit down and a bite to eat over lunch we continued on our way up Oxford Road to St. Peter’s House, an ecumenical church and chaplaincy. This is contained within the University precinct and is another example of work by JRG Seward of Cruickshank and Seward. It opened in 1976 and the main celebration space shows similar gestures towards Aalto seen in Hulme Hall. The space is also used as a lecture theatre, though I think it would be an odd space to lecture in. A lot of bare brick walls and no real focal point. We then went up a level to look at the tiny contemplation room (most interesting part the hefty door with in-set coloured glass), before heading off for an exterior view of the celebration space. It was great to walk around the precinct and hear about how it was part of plans for elevated walkways, connected shops, health centre and university teaching provision. Though it is evident today that this never entirely materialised.
Our final stop for the day was St. Augustine’s Church, off of Grosvenor Square. St. Augustine’s was designed by Desmond Williams Associates and opened in 1968. It was built to replace a previous church that was shelled during World War II.
As one enters, the floor of the church slopes gently downward toward an open altar sanctuary to “allow as many people as possible to see”, but it also contribute toward the sense that one is moving away from the street and focussing elsewhere.
The main source of focus in St. Augustine’s is the imposing sculpture behind the altar entitled ‘Christ in Glory’ by Robert Brumby. A closer look at this gave an indication of the amount of work that went into the relief, with evidence of pieces being individually screwed together.
We were greeted in St. Augustine’s by Father Lanyon who pointed out the stained-glass windows, the specially designed candle sconces, lectern and altar pieces. As a working building it obviously has its challenges e.g. replacing strip lighting on very high ceilings in an era of health and safety regulations. But for the tour participants it allowed time to sit and pour over notes, including an information pack compiled for us by Father Lanyon, and of course, to take plenty of photographs. But that wasn’t the end! We were then led to a room on the first floor at the back of the church which is used as a library and archive. Tables had been set out with materials to browse through, with copies of the Catholic Building Review being particularly popular, in addition to projections of on-going digitisation projects. Eventually we were persuaded to leave behind the library and move downstairs to round up the day with a very welcome tea and biscuit.
Thanks to NW Branch of the Twentieth Century Society and Manchester Modernists for arranging the tour, and to Richard Brook for sharing with us his long-standing and on-going research into post-war Manchester. Text in italics taken from tour notes.
Further photos from the tour can be found here.