Will Manchester’s new arts centre live up to the world-class status its aspires to, asks Owen Pritchard
Swaggering Manchester has never had a problem with a cultural identity. Opposite where the infamous Hacienda nightclub once stood, at the heart of the new First Street development on Tony Wilson Place (named after the TV presenter turned impresario who defined the city’s cultural agenda) is HOME, a new theatre, cinema, gallery and restaurant designed by Dutch architect Mecanoo. The new building brings together two of the city’s much-loved, well-established institutions: the Cornerhouse arts centre and the Library Theatre company.
First Street is a startling anachronism: a cluster of new buildings adopting the architectural language that typified the noughties – what Owen Hatherley has dubbed ‘pseudomodernism’. There’s a bright red 200-bed hotel and a gold-clad 700-space car park by local architect Simpson Haugh, BDP’s One First Street office development, and VITA student accommodation by 5Plus architects – all chunky forms and garish cladding. Nestled in among all the visual noise is the deep blue form of the £25 million HOME building, butted up alongside the railway viaduct, which disconnects the site from the city centre.
HOME evokes nostalgia for the days when we had a cavalier attitude to funding cultural projects
Mecanoo had its work cut out having to cram an ambitious schedule of rooms onto an awkwardly shaped site – a 450-seat auditorium, a 160-seat flexible theatre, five cinema screens, a gallery, a large restaurant and bars. The architect began by working out the spatial needs of each part of the whole, finding a way to arrange the independent volumes around the site, then wrapping them in a glass shell – Mecanoo likens it to arranging squares in a triangle; boxes in boxes in a box.
The main auditorium is a replica of London’s Royal Court Theatre, refurbished by Haworth Tompkins in the late 90s. The decision to create an intimate performance space bodes well for HOME’s artistic direction – the Royal Court is the home of radical theatre, despite being on Sloane Square. HOME’s sightlines and balcony levels provide a great connection between performer and audience; each are never more than 10m from the other. Across the rest of the building there is a lot of flexibility in the spaces that will allow HOME to offer a diverse programme of events. The second auditorium space is a simple black box that can also double as a gallery. The cinema capacities range from 40 people to 250 – the independently run schedule covering everything from blockbusters to niche seasons and festivals. The new gallery, although similar in size to its predecessor at the Cornerhouse, offers far more hanging space and, as you would expect from a modern gallery, it can be divided into cells or left open plan; be blacked out or flooded with natural light. This is a building where every performance and display space is primed to work incredibly hard. One day a space may hold a dance party, the next it could be transformed to host a panel discussion or screening.
Everything in this cultural multiplex is rigged for performance. The AV equipment is interlinked so performances can segue from auditoriums and cinemas to lobbies and circulatory space via speakers and projectors. With successful programming, and if HOME is bold with its container, it will have a bright future and the status as a world class institution it so clearly craves.
Where this building falters is with its external appearance and disappointing public space. Compared with its garish neighbours, its exterior is introverted. The architects talk of the ‘iridescent blue skin’, yet it is hard to see the lustre. Inside, the public spaces are characterless, waiting to be animated by performance – the atmosphere will lurch from frenzy to banality. The spaces use a palette of plywood and exposed concrete floors – tough and hardwearing, not so homey. High above the café the decision to leave the services exposed leaves a bright blue soil pipe snaking threateningly above diners. The oak bars are shoehorned beneath stairwells, while kitchens are squeezed into residual space. It’s only right that the money has been spent on the performance spaces that will allow this building to thrive, but this has left the public spaces feeling half finished. This is especially apparent with the staircase. Possibly intended to be a grand gesture, it is dressed in fins of untreated plywood and the stairway wobbles and clanks as you glimpse the activity around you. It feels like a compromise, that something more special should have gone here but the money ran out, so something odd-looking had to suffice.
HOME evokes nostalgia for the days when we had a cavalier attitude to funding cultural projects; when lottery money was splashed about with abandon – a tactic that saw its fair share of successes and failures. We have come to expect more from Mecanoo. For a building called HOME, its presence is unwelcoming – the charm of the Cornerhouse’s found spaces has been lost.
Manchester, with the potential arrival of HS2, is primed to undergo a period of substantial change not seen since the rebuilding work that followed the 1996 IRA bombing. Across the skyline, still presided over by Simpson’s Beetham tower, a number of buildings of impressive scale are being erected. As the area around Piccadilly is regenerated, careful consideration needs to be given to the quality of the buildings being constructed. The flexibility offered by the spaces within HOME could provide exciting opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration that will see the building thrive. It’s just a shame that outwardly the architecture appears to share so little of this aspiration.
Manchester City Council appointed Mecanoo to design a 7,600m² art and culture house with two theatre spaces (500 and 150 seats), five cinema screens (250, 150, 60, 40 and 40 seats), a restaurant, café, roof terrace, gallery space, three foyers, bookshop, sponsor’s room, offices, rehearsal room, work places, educational spaces, dressing rooms and a public square. The building had to achieve a BREEAM Very Good certified rating.
Francesco Veenstra, associate partner, Mecanoo
HOME forms the new cultural heart of Manchester – a flagship building that acts as a catalyst for the surrounding area. HOME has been designed to allow for the commissioning, production and hosting of critically engaged and technically complex artistic projects, as well as to host large-scale cultural events.
Its striking exterior acts like beacon, while the welcoming public spaces and social areas within are designed to be inviting to all. HOME is like a second home, a cultural home. It is a place for making, meeting and socialising, alongside enjoying the very best in international contemporary visual art, theatre and film.
The building’s characteristic, triangular shape and rounded corners create a strong visual identity. The glazed facade, adorned with irregularly spaced fins, opens up where public areas are located, giving the building a varied and dynamic appearance. A terrace is located beneath the large overhang, connecting the café bar and the public square.
Inside, the triangular floorplan allows for a series of unique rooms inhabited within the three corners, including one of the five cinemas. The interior concept and layout is that of an urban living room, instilling a sense of warmth and intimacy.
The central stairwell acts as the main circulation route through the building, connecting the venue’s different uses: theatre, cinema and gallery. The bars on each floor and the restaurant are located in the areas in between, cleverly integrated into the characteristic stairwell. The rugged concrete floors and walls contrast beautifully with the warm oak of the bars.
Francesco Veenstra, associate partner, Mecanoo
Mecanoo did not come with a ‘here is one I prepared earlier’ proposal when it pitched for the work, which is why we thought the practice was right for the job. Ahead of the appointment, our client team had invested a lot of time and effort in developing the project brief. Mecanoo took this as the starting point for a series of conversations that first interrogated the brief and then explored different approaches to finding design solutions. It felt like a true collaboration.
As part of that process we also undertook a number of site visits to inform our thinking and develop common reference points. When we entered the construction phase, we did so with a lot of mutual understanding of – and confidence in – the design.
Now that HOME is open we can see that the design works. Most importantly, our audiences can see the DNA of our previous buildings in HOME so they feel comfortable, and numbers have increased. It incorporates our organisational/brand values by putting art in the foreground, and does not try to be an overpowering architectural statement.
HOME is a good place to work, make, present and engage with art because of Mecanoo’s drive and focus to make a building that meets the brief.
Dave Moutrey, Director and chief executive of HOME