14th February 2019

Artefact of the Week: The Toast Rack

In this instalment of Artefact of the Week, Bella Jewell examines a mancunian treasure, The Toast Rack: a grade two listed brutalist masterpiece.
Artefact of the Week: The Toast Rack
Photo: Mikey @ Flickr

This unusual building certainly divides opinion. Whilst some are drawn to the raw, 1960s brutalism of the concrete construction, others are disdainful of the monochrome, derelict building. Despite differences in taste, however, The Hollings building – known as ‘The Toast Rack’ – is a national treasure; a grade two listed national treasure.

Tucked behind the University of Manchester’s Fallowfield campus, the iconic Toast Rack has stood empty for the past six years, having been closed to students in 2013. Despite having been frozen in time for the past few years, there are proposals in the works to transform this modernist classic into a new futuristic space, housing flats, a restaurant, and a covered garden amongst other features.

To truly appreciate this Toblerone-shaped building, however, it is important to look to its past. The Hollings building was constructed in 1960 by architect, Leonard Cecil Howitt, and was certainly an avant-garde creation. The building was originally home to the Domestic Trades College, later becoming part of Manchester Metropolitan University. There is speculation that Howitt’s design was a humorous nod to the building’s function as a domestic science college, given its appearance as a toast rack, next to the attached semi-circular restaurant block, known as the Fried Egg.

However, the profoundly unconventional form of the building goes beyond a superfluous joke; the tapered shape served an intensely practical purpose, creating teaching spaces of varying sizes, hosting both small and large classes of students. The accompanying ‘fried egg’ construction equally held its own, as the circular hall provided the perfect space for catwalk shows, so students could display their needlework and designs.

The architect behind the design, Leonard Cecil Howitt, did not only contribute this modernist masterpiece to Manchester’s cityscape. As city architect of Manchester, he led several ambitious projects, including the redevelopment of Manchester’s Free Trade Hall after it underwent damage during the Blitz, as well as the construction of the mind-boggling Manchester Courts of Justice premises.

Photo: DPP Law @ Flickr
Photo: @ Flickr

Howitt’s capacity to reimagine urban space has been praised by many, including the renowned architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who proclaimed the Toast Rack to be “a perfect piece of pop architecture.” In fact, the Manchester Modernist Society, established in 2014, described it as “a gem of a building” and “one of the best designs of its era.”

The society, of whom the former Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr, is a patron, has completed much work over the years to document the history and architectural significance of this building, creating an online ‘Toastrack Museum’. The collection is an archive of photographs and objects associated with the building, forever cementing its silhouette in our imaginations.

In a period of constant geographical change, as Manchester’s urban space is in a state of flux, it is important to take note of the striking buildings that make up our skyline. Howitt’s Toast Rack challenged contemporary notions of design and architectural beauty, creating a construction which continues to spark debate, but is undeniably a Mancunian treasure.

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