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Stage presence

A bemused Sutherland Lyall reports on a new theatre where brick is centre stage

Alan Short, architect and professor at de Montfort University, claims that 'our buildings are getting heavier.' His most recent completed work following his Queen's building at de Montfort is the refurbishment and expansion of the Contact Theatre in Manchester.

You're driving up Manchester's Oxford Road and you've almost got through the university quarter when you skid to a halt because over there on the right beyond a recently cleared-out square is this extraordinary sight. A pale brick, three- or four-storey ramble of a building with a kind of apron down one of the front facades in waves of overlapping metal sheeting and, balancing precariously 40m up above, this amazing jumble of dislocated brick chimney things.

You think Expressionism, maybe Steiner, maybe Ton Albers, perhaps Michael Hopkins and his vast chimneys opposite Big Ben and at Nottingham - and of course Alan Short a couple of years ago at de Montfort university. For this is the work of his office.

Expressive

The overlapping zinc sheeting reminds you simultaneously of half-stripped theatre billboards waiting for the elaborately edited reviews for the next shows - and those big, painted tin faces you find as entrances to Lunar Parks all over the world. But never before have you seen anything like those gigantic, crazy, chimney structures tottering up there in the sky. This is England. This is England under the planning system yoke and you find yourself astonished that the planners didn't go into terminal, total paroxysmal mode before letting such an extraordinary show to go ahead.

But yes they did and here it is and what can anyone possibly make of it?

There is more rooftop fun with a row of crenellated zinc-clad chimney-style structures marching at an angle of 450 across the back of the building. This latter assemblage is actually above the heavily refurbished sixties theatre which follows the orthogonal layout of the streets. Short says he would have preferred brick for these roof structures too but the old theatre roof had not been designed to take that kind of load.

To the left in front of the old theatre is an office and rehearsal block whose lower section involves a complicated screen of brick and somewhat Steineresque precast-concrete detailing behind which is an external staircase to the first floor. Fronting the lower adjacent block (with three conventional dormers jutting up beyond the eaves) are four single-storey, perforated brick sheds with outrageous peaked roofs. Over on the right beside the zinc waves is a brick cylinder containing a staircase with lavatories and storage rooms in its core.

Sustainability

You look a bit harder at the chimney assemblage and it begins to make a kind of visual sense. The slender unreinforced brick supports rise from a curving stripped-baroque base and there are metal struts and ties holding the mass of overhead brick together. It is, argues Short, to do with the practice's affection for Viollet-le-Duc and his casual mixing of traditional and cutting edge construction methods - and the sympathetic know-how of engineer Steve Morley. It turns out that the great brick array in the sky, like the zinc-clad array on the roof slanting away to the left, is a series of interlinked H-shaped potstyle ventilators. For this is a building whose design is predicated to a fairly high degree on its non-mechanical environmental conditioning.

Fast

With conventional conditioning you pump air in from outside through, depending on the sophistication of the system, washers and filters and heating and cooling elements. You then distribute it through ducts or plenums to the working spaces and exhaust it back to the outside via, say, ceiling ducts. All the ducts can be quite small because the fans push the air along at a relatively high speed. However, air handling costs a lot and if there is not a dedicated building management and maintenance team, environmental conditioning systems can go wrong. In the old Contact Theatre there was a tendency to switch off the mechanical ventilation because fan noise interfered with performances. So the theatre people were very receptive when Alan Short suggested a nonmechanical air-handling building for their ultimately successful Lottery bid.

Slow

It is a system which deploys the relatively well understood 'stack effect'.

Slow-moving air is sucked into the building at ground level where it is heated (or not) and is slowly evacuated at roof level. The principle is simple, but there are other issues. Short says: 'If you are forcing air into a building you can do it through small holes. But if you are letting it drift in you need big openings at top and bottom. There is a big rock venue next door and a university audiometry department nearby so there is a special need on this site to somehow kill the noise from outside - and stop it escaping. You also need, with big openings, to devise a way of keeping the rain out.'

And that is how the idea of the H pot configuration developed, following research by engineers Max Fordham into ways of avoiding downdrafts and attenuating noise - for which brick is apparently an ideal material. The towering height is a consequence of the need to have the outlet ventilation as high as possible above the building and surrounding ridgelines. Short explains, 'There are tall university building of seven or so storeys in the direction of the prevailing wind. The stack principle works with very low pressure differences and if it is reversed you can get into trouble: serious trouble as we discovered when we saw the results of wind-tunnel testing by the Welsh School of Architecture.'

Brick interiors

Although the zinc waves down the front elevation are attention grabbing, you enter the building by marching up to the facade and then turning sharp left through an airlock of conventional glass doors leading to the box office and then the cafe. Stairs lead up to the lobby of the main theatre, a lift takes you up to the studio theatre and rehearsal space.

Although the building is labyrinthine there is no especial reason why a theatre complex should not, in time-honoured fashion, be exactly that.

There is quite a lot of brickwork internally with some dramatic curving upper walls around the main theatre lobby.

The building relies on heavy internal masonry to maintain thermal stability.

Here Short has used calcium-silicate bricks. He's a real enthusiast - particularly because of their precision and their range of colours. It needs to be said that these features are only partly supported by the reality. Because the joints are raked quite deeply and the individual bricks are so sharp edged, you immediately notice any irregularity in bricklaying.

Brick exteriors

The exterior bricks are mellow red soft mud bricks which, although machine-made, have the irregular, random appearance of handmade bricks. Short says that whenever it is possible he likes to use local sand for mortar. But it's impossible to maintain consistency and colour on a big job. So he reluctantly used a premixed mortar: 'a natural mortar with a bit of colour in it to make it look more natural, ' he notes sardonically.

Form follows . . .

It is a little difficult not to keep your fingers crossed behind your back when you nod agreement as the apparently inevitable logic of the Contact Theatre's design unfolds. This is actually a design of great joy, some inevitable infelicities of detail design and madness and, judging by the casual comfortableness of the users, a design of sound method. But it would be a pity if anybody came away with the notion that this building was the outcome merely of cold rational reasoning.

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