Manchester rises from ashes and makes Contact
Manchester's striking new Contact Theatre has finally re-opened its doors to the public after a three-year refurbishment. Short and Associates' £4.5 million design, funded by an Arts Council lottery grant, has all but buried any trace of the original 1960s university theatre with its vibrant new facilities. These include two new auditoria, a large rehearsal space, and associated cafe and bar. The newly revamped theatre is a sophisticated and witty riposte to much of the other new architecture of Manchester whilst relating to a tradition of twentieth century Manchester buildings which include St Michael and All Angels (aka the Star Church) by Cachemaille- Day, and Hollings College (aka the Toast Rack) by L C Howitt. Such apparent populism is partly accounted for by the theatre's determination to be attractive to the 13-30 age group, cashing in on Manchester's large youth population and the City Council's commitment to make Manchester a 24-hour city - the new building has yet to receive a nickname.
Set back some distance from the City's busiest road, there is now no problem finding the Contact which was previously lost amidst car parks, undeveloped parts of the university, and an inter-war school building which formed part of the theatre's store. From the street, the most striking element of the new work is the profusion of 135m-high ventilating towers which crown the new auditoria. These mix 'Star Wars' imagery with the odd reference to Viollet-le-Duc and the ubiquitous 'spear-carrier' role of the aspiring actor. In a bizarre version of form following function, the towers point to the eco-friendly design which uses natural air ventilation throughout all the public areas of the theatre. Previously the noise of its ageing air-conditioning plant either ruined performances or it had to be turned off and the audience left to stew.
Research into naturally ventilating and passively cooling the auditorium was carried out by the University of Wales' School of Architecture's Professor Phil Jones, Max Fordham and Associates and the architects. Acting as natural silencers, the towers will also have the effect of maintaining Contact's visibility from the street following proposed further building development at the university. Throughout the building references to Le Corbusier, Islamic architecture and Gaudi are combined with some unusually well-integrated public art work. Chief amongst these is Hot Air by Lulu Quin, a full-height zinc curtain permanently installed in the foyer which responds to movement and sound by illuminating hands making contact from behind.