A word from the Architects!

9 06 2011

Selected from 139 entries, it was London-based practice MUMA (McInnes, Usher, McKnight Architects) who won the RIBA architectural competition to design the Whitworth’s long awaited extension.  Up against practices from all over the world, it was MUMA’s sensitive and thoughtful response to a complex brief that set them apart.

Established in 2000, MUMA is comprised of Gillian McInnes, Simon Usher and Stuart McKnight, who studied together at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow. Over the past 10 years they have worked on several prestigious projects, for which they have received international awards and recognition. You can read more about MUMA on the capital development section of the Whitworth’s website: http://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/capital/architects

Volunteer Emma Williams spent an hour with Stuart McKnight to find out more about the design.


Can you tell us a little about how the plans for the extension are drawn up between the three of you?

As a partnership we all work together on the design and construction of any building, but initially Gillian and I will take the lead, during what are referred to as the concept, schematic and design development stages, with Simon commenting on this process throughout. As we move into the construction and documentation stages, Simon takes more of a lead role, working with the contractors on site as the building takes shape. Throughout I remain involved to ensure continuity between the design and the construction stages of the project.

Have you been able to draw on previous experiences from similar projects for inspiration in designing the Whitworth’s extension?

Well, one of the last projects we worked on was the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria &Albert Museum in London. Although every design is totally informed by its context, there were certainly some similar considerations with both projects. Specifically, in both instances we wanted to create simple, open spaces, free from visual clutter, so as to best emphasise the collections – we didn’t want the gallery’s surroundings to undermine the clarity of the art on display.

We’ve also taken a lot from the environmental strategy of the V&A project that we hope to bring to the Whitworth as well.

Is it important that the Whitworth’s extension is identifiable as a MUMA design? – Do you have a specific style that carries from one project to the next?

Not really, we certainly aren’t interested in putting our signature all over a design, we simply look to find the best solution to the problem – every project we undertake is different and we would not wish to have a specific style that carries from one project to another anyway!

However, people are starting to say there are similarities between the projects we’ve worked on, if not in design than in sensibilities – purely in the way we’ve approached a project and the elements that we’ve chosen to focus on. I suppose you could say that our signature is in trying to identify the true essence of a project, and working to emphasise that, but never in trying to ensure that the design ‘looks like a MUMA design’ – it’s not about us, but about the building entirely.

What were the main considerations for your design in this instance?

We felt it very important that the extension blended in with its surroundings, sitting among the trees as opposed to on top of them!  The park is such a beautiful setting for the gallery and we wanted to make the most of that – for example the new café will be made primarily of glass, so that visitors really get a feel of sitting within the park – highlighting the gallery’s natural environment.

Trying to make the most of the natural light was also a big consideration for us; not only does maximising the light reduce the need for artificial lights inside – making the building more sustainable – but its also a great way to integrate the building with its surroundings.

Of course lighting is key within the gallery, but works of art also need to be protected against over-exposure – what is your approach here?

I feel that the role of the architecture lies somewhere between that of the conservator, and in protecting the interests of the visitors, who come to see the art. We understand that the art’s exposure to the natural environment needs to be carefully regulated, but we also realise that it’s there to be seen and enjoyed by the visitors, so it’s finding a balance between the two.

One of the things we’re hoping to incorporate into the design are automated blinds that will open and close with the opening and closing of the gallery to the public. That way, the gallery’s collection will only be exposed to natural light during the Whitworth’s opening hours, meaning there is less unnecessary exposure to light, which can be traded off against the need to filter the natural light down to the same extent as we would have to if the collection were sitting in natural light from sunrise to sunset.  This will result in a better viewing experience for visitors, while still complying with the need to conserve the art on display.

Obviously a large consideration in designing the Whitworth’s extension was in trying to reduce the gallery’s carbon footprint despite increasing the size of the building; do you find environmental/energy efficiency issues are of a greater concern to clients now, than when MUMA was formed in 2000?

Definitely, since 2000 and particularly over the past 5-7 years there’s been a growing emphasis from clients, and within the practice itself, on ensuring designs are both environmentally sustainable and energy efficient.  Such considerations now heavily inform our designs, as we try to achieve the best possible results while minimising the environmental impact of the project.

For instance, the V&A had originally in 2003 required within the brief an air conditioning system within the gallery, but during the course of the project we were able to, together with the V&A and the engineers, work this out of the design in favour of more environmentally friendly methods of gallery climate control. The V&A was a very enlightened client in this respect and we are pleased to find a similarly progressive attitude at the Whitworth.

In what way is the development sustainable?

Our approach is to build upon the inherent opportunities within the existing building (this is one way we offered an alternative approach to the original competition brief). By flipping some accommodation around we’ve established the collection storage in the stable environment of the Lower Ground Floor and relocated the lecture theatre to the upper floor, where there is a less stable environment but high ceilings suiting large gatherings of people. By swapping these uses around we’ve immediately gone a long way towards a sustainable solution.

There a manyother ways in which the new development is a sustainable build, both strategic and using new technology. We’ll be using a number of environmentally friendly methods to control the climate within the gallery, including air supplied through earth tubes which will be dug out beneath the art garden.

We’ve looked to make the most of the natural light available to the gallery, which will reduce the need for artificial light within. Green roofs will be installed at the rear of the building (in addition to the green roof already in existence at the front!). All of this and more means we’ve been able to reduce the carbon footprint of the Whitworth by 10%, despite increasing it’s size by a third, and doubling the size of the area available to the public!

Your initial proposal to the Whitworth strayed from some of the recommendations set out in the brief, why was this?

When we design a building, we always try to ensure that it best fulfils the goals set out in the brief, and our design for the Whitworth’s extension was no exception. Any suggestions we made in our proposal were fundamental to best achieving what the Whitworth wanted too with its extension. Some reasons were environmental as already discussed others were a response to the character of the building and its setting.

MUMA's design for the Whitworth's new courtyard section, looking towards the park.

We decided submit a proposal which placed the extension more to the rear of the gallery than to the side – as suggested in the brief – for a number of reasons. The Whitworth is a symmetrical building to which we responded with the new art garden being placed on axis, enclosed by the asymmetrical extension. We also believed the art garden would be better sheltered from outside noise pollution if it was housed to the rear of gallery, between the two extended arms of the gallery.

Most importantly, we felt it would be a huge shame to loose the trees that line the side of the Whitworth – all of these trees are structures in their own right with a long history within the park, and a long future ahead of them, we felt it in the interests of the gallery to protect these if possible.

Is there a part of the design that you’re particularly proud of/excited to see built?

I’ll be excited when the first holes (into the back of the existing galleries) are knocked through! It’ll be great to open that space up and see exactly how the extension will align itself with the surrounding park.

What does it mean to MUMA to have worked with so many prestigious organisations?

Although it’s great to say that we have, it definitely isn’t about the prestige for us. We secure all of our contracts through entering architectural competitions, and we only do so if we really want to tender for a project.

The project has to excite us, but we also have to believe that we can provide the best response to the brief. It’s always more about the specifics of the project for us, than it is the organisation that’s involved!

Do you have a favourite project from those you’ve worked on in MUMA’s 11 year history?

Not really, every project is so different, and presents us with new and exciting challenges; it would be very difficult to pick a favourite!


Stuart’s final comment was that he and the rest of the team at MUMA had taken much inspiration from the Margaret Pilkington quote included in the brief. Margaret was an early director of the Whitworth, and her words sum up perfectly our imagining of the new development:

“I have come to the conclusion that a good museum or gallery should be a place where people feel comfortable. If it stands in a garden or park, the visitors should be able to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors as a counterpoint to what is within.”



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