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Manchester's stylish new home for music

Chetham's school and library's latest building combines mediaeval and modern, with plenty for the wider community and rooms whose oak and felt walls can be tuned. Helen Nugent pays a visit

Not many buildings can lay claim to have been a 15th century ecclesiastical centre, a gunpowder factory, a Civil War prison, a school for poor boys and a meeting place for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. But the buildings which form the core of Manchester's medieval quarter are no ordinary structures.

Affectionately known as 'Chets', the Chetham's School of Music sits cheek by jowl with Chetham's Library, the oldest lending library in the Western world. The school is the largest specialist music institution in Britain and boasts a glittering list of musical alumni.

Now, hundreds of years after a local man, Humphrey Chetham, bought the property to house his school and library, this city centre landmark is entering a new phase. A £47 million project, which includes a state-of-the-art development spanning seven floors, will, it is hoped, transform music education and performance in the north of England.

"The buildings we had weren't fit for purpose," says Stephen Threlfall, director of music at Chetham's. "We had a team but nowhere to play. Now it's like coming out of a sardine tin and on to a decent sized plate."

Among the facilities at the new site, which is linked to the 15th century complex by a steel footbridge, are two new performance spaces (a recital hall and a cavernous concert hall), academic and music departments, an outreach centre for the local community and a light-filled atrium spanning seven floors.

More than 500,000 handmade bricks have been employed in the construction of the centre, all crafted in Yorkshire and designed to complement the sandstone of the original buildings.

Supporters of the project are particularly proud of the structure's acoustic accomplishments. A combination of thick, felt curtains and oak surrounds come together to produce rooms that can tune themselves. Put simply, the materials can be adjusted to absorb sound and therefore the quality of the music.

Threlfall says:

We've got 100 odd pianos which, in our current building, constantly need retuning because of the faulty heating. Students have been practising and rehearsing in little cells for a long, long time. Some of the rooms have got plaster coming off and there is no sound installation.

In the new building, rooms have been built within rooms in order to provide near perfect sound-proofing, a necessary feature given that Chetham's is next to a major train station and a key bus route.

Michael Oglesby is project leader of the redevelopment. He says:

We didn't want to create a pastiche. We wanted to create a building that works with what is already here but is a building of its time. And that's what we have done. There are no compromises in the new building. The existing building is full of compromises.

The medieval buildings are wonderful but the music school is something special and unique in Manchester. When planning this we seriously considered building a new school elsewhere, it would have been cheaper and easier. But the weight of feeling, not just from the school but also from the city, meant we were keen to keep the school at the heart of the city.

By the time Chetham's new home opens as a tourist attraction in 2014, the project will have been going for 12 years, from conception to completion. However, the development will be fully functioning for the new school year this September. Work on the 400-seat concert hall will be finished when the final tranche of funding has been found.

In the meantime, students will be able to make full use of 50 music teaching rooms, 62 music practice rooms, a music technology centre and four ensemble rooms – all with acoustic and humidity control to protect the instruments.

Roger Stephenson Architects, the firm behind the new design, are known in Manchester for combining old with new. They were in charge of transforming the old Free Trade Hall – where Bob Dylan went electric 46 years ago – into a major new hotel. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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