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Piece of China

OMI Architects' Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester is a successful reworking of a historic building with a mission to celebrate and convey the message of contemporary Chinese arts

The Chinese Arts Centre is the UK's focus for encouraging and promoting contemporary Chinese arts and culture. Founded in 1986, it is now housed on Thomas Street in central Manchester, the city with the second highest Chinese population in the UK. When creating a centre for contemporary Chinese art nationally, Grade II-listed Victorian fish market offices (part of Smithfield Market Buildings) may not seem the obvious place to start. In fact, they have much going for them.

First is the relatively central location, where a small organisation would find it difficult to build new. And while the more conventional office spaces from the first floor upwards had already been converted into apartments in 2002, the basement and ground floor taken by the centre are more special and appropriate. The ground floor, ranging from 4-5m high, provides good height for galleries and enough to fit in mezzanine floors in a few places. The basement can be made separately accessible from the street as well as via the ground-floor entrance. And the groundfloor street front is a run of large, glazed, rectangular stone-framed openings, good for giving a taste of what lies within.

The centre knows that it has its work cut out to build up understanding of contemporary Chinese art, trying to make the culture accessible as well as putting the arts and crafts on show. It has set itself a modest target of 15,000 visitors in the first year, including school parties; it is on track to exceed that. The first move to draw people in off the street has been to make its shop and tea house clearly visible across most of the front. These can be used simply as a shop or cafe by passers-by. The listed facade would otherwise be rather anonymous, though the main entrance has been emphasised by being set back behind a specially commissioned, three-leaf sliding gate by Mary Tang and Peter Wilkinson. Signage is mainly spare lettering on the window glass about exhibitions and events. (A corner entrance has been closed up, for clarity, security and to reduce staffing costs. ) Once inside, light from the windows, the high ceiling and the predominantly light-coloured finishes make a welcoming impression, with tastes of China in the red painting of existing columns, the timber block wall (with inset fish tank), the Chinese shop goods and the beautifully made, walnut-veneered storage for innumerable teas to sample and buy. Tables and chairs are by Beijing designer Lin Jing. Detailing is refined, a spareness suggestive of the orient. OMI Architects wishing to avoid 'the austerity and minimalism found in much of contemporary gallery design'. Instead the architect uses white surfaces to set off natural materials, textures and colours.

In this first space, the reception desk inevitably has a mixed role, at once trying not to seem a barrier inhibiting people wandering into the shop and tea house, yet needing to be a security point for the offices and galleries further back in the building. Small and set back, it is a good compromise. Less successful, though, is the entry to the galleries immediately behind it, the entrance corridor narrow enough that it might be thought the route to non-public backstage spaces. The galleries don't have presence at this point - more Hayward than National Gallery.

That said, this centre is not just a gallery and cafe/shop. It aims to act as a clearing house and promoter for contemporary Chinese arts and cultural events nationally. The building itself has a studio for an artist in residence, its basement is an education centre mainly used for schools, which can also be used or hired out for conferences, (the gallery can be hired too). There are also a resource centre, staff offices and art storage in the centre's 570m 2. And all this within a tight budget; though the lottery grant from the Arts Council England was £2.2 million, the construction budget was only £825,000 of this. The centre is more the base for an organisation with a mission than simply an exhibition building. There are events held in schools, for example, and the centre provides Chinese performers and artists to promote cultural awareness more widely.

The gallery is impressive when you get there. It can't, of course, be sky-lit but the ceiling contains 120 computer-controlled fittings, allowing mood changes and even for use of the space as a cinema. The ceiling grid has the rhythm of a timber-panelled ceiling. There are also perimeter lighting tracks.

Walls are plain, of national gallery standard (for example taking 50kg point loads). The space is not that large, so power and IT can be housed solely in recessed skirtings, allowing a completely clear floor, its black 600 x 300mm slabs an echo of Chinese brick floors.

Temporary partitioning is, of course, possible. The space is comfort-cooled, as is the centre throughout.

Alongside the entrance, with two fullheight slit windows and its own door on to the street, is the studio for an artist in residence.

They will mostly be up-and-coming British Chinese artists. This space can also be used as a small gallery, though there is no pressure on the artist to work towards a Manchester exhibition. A kitchen and bathroom, with a ladder allowing the artist to scramble up to a mezzanine bed and desk space, provide pocket-sized accommodation for a few weeks.

Behind the shop, another mezzanine level houses the offices (with plant below). Their windows look into the shop volume, providing outside contact and additional discreet supervision of shop customers.

From the shop, oak stairs lead down to the education/conference centre, though there is also a separate access from the street so that the oriental calm need not be disturbed by a bubbling torrent of schoolchildren. The main basement space is entered through a pair of traditional timber doors with decorative ironwork, acquired in China. And within the room is a timber home shrine of similar provenance. A sprung floor suits Tai Chi classes. These are part of trying to explain and involve people in Chinese culture, an essential role of the centre. In a similar vein, many educational events are run as participatory workshops, such as drama and calligraphy.

With such a diversity of activities in the centre, flexibility is particularly important.

For the basement's alternative entrance, adjacent WCs, folding acoustic partitions and a servery provide many options from formal to informal use.

OMI has succeeded in balancing the varying messages and roles of this centre. It is a workplace - mission control for a national mission. It has to earn its keep where it can.

It is a gallery serious about contemporary art. And it is a community centre not only for the Chinese community but also reaching out to the local population generally. It has made a promising start.

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