A practice of six that includes an ex-sheet metal worker, an ex-upholsterer, a graphic designer and a founding member who wrote his dissertation on architecture and cookery, is almost duty bound to come up with some radical design solutions. Union North, a Liverpool practice for whom the more restrictive mantras of Modernism have clearly got too much, has applied its oblique creative mix to what it is hoping will be its last bar/nightclub project.
MPV is housed in four identical funky, chunky red pods that protrude cheekily from four interconnected railway arches in Leeds city centre. The arches carry the transPennine railway from Liverpool through Manchester and onwards to York and Newcastle. By day, the shiny shuttered pods give no clue as to their identity or their point of entry; each 7x3m front wall is in fact a counterweighted, hinged door, which opens upwards on a power-assisted winch mechanism to form a canopy.
'We aimed for a response which would achieve maximum contrast between the existing structure, which we weren't allowed to alter, and the new intervention, ' says Lance Routh, Union North's co-director (and cookery guy). His favourite bit is the remote door control, operated from a secure box opposite the pods. 'You can orchestrate them so they all open together, ' he says with a laugh.
Once opened, four svelte and cleverly lit interiors are revealed: glossy plum laminated and meranti plywood-lined wall panels which curve continuously from the floor and follow the roofline round. The plywood ceiling houses light scoops with concealed fittings, and warm air grilles and speakers are also concealed. Bars are oak; upholstery and drinks counters are in durable black leather.
Routh and partner Miles Falkingham built up the aptly named Union North on the back of Liverpool's '90s nightlife explosion, injecting a fair measure of stylistic rigour into the city's cavernous bar and club scene. A steady stream of commissions included Blue Bar, Baby Blue (AJ 27.4.00) and Modo. Now that the explosion has become an implosion, with nearly as many bars as there are punters to patronise them, Union North has seen the writing on the dripping walls. New projects include housing schemes in Liverpool and Manchester, and a collaboration with Rotterdam-based practice BIQ Architecten for a £5 million refurbishment of the Bluecoat Art Centre, Liverpool's city centre jewel.
But first Union North has sidetracked to Leeds for MPV. MPV stands for multi-purpose venue, but the original concept for a versatile meeting, drinking and performance space has so far failed to materialise, even though the unexpectedly generous site would allow various creative day and night time uses.
The practice envisaged a musical and cultural dimension which would bring the outside area into play and differentiate the four rooms with separate functions, such as a comedy club and live music. But the client finally decided to focus solely on the internal spaces, so in effect MPV operates as four giant bars with dance floors at either end, and drinkers spilling out onto the enclosed cobbled area to the front.
Townhouse Life was an existing client, owned by a couple who previously ran clothing stores in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. It commissioned Union North to convert a disused mill near to Leeds Corn Exchange, where it also had a shop, into the Townhouse bar/restaurant three years ago.
Bolstered by Townhouse's success, it acquired eight arches from Railtrack's property arm less than a kilometre along the track from Leeds City Station, on the south edge of the city centre. The four end arches comprise MPV, while the first four await refurbishment.
Despite being just outside the city centre club circuit, the only apparent disadvantage is that revellers, who would logically progress along the short distance from the pedestrianised Townhouse area, have to zigzag under the railway twice to reach MPV because a fenced-off factory car park denies direct access. The club replaces an assortment of units including a tattoo parlour and a taxi firm which also used the paved area to the front.
The site is almost south-facing, and looks out on to the enormous early 19th century Leeds parish church. The venue's address is 5-8 Church Walk, but it is well separated from the church by a wide grassed area and Kirkgate, a main road flowing westwards into the city centre. To the east, the site is bounded by a busy arterial road. The arches are not blind, but the back wall of office buildings abuts them to the north, blocking most of the daylight.
MPV may be just a short stagger from Union North's earlier and bigger bar, but baby Townhouse it is not. 'It's not an unexpected use, but it is an unexpected treatment, ' says Routh. 'We try to bring an individual response to each project instead of relying on a formulaic house style, and MPV is a good example of this. It is a product design solution as much as a building design solution, so we have expressed seals and trims like a fridge door or a portable TV.'
In cross section, the pods, or units, resemble a tilting train carriage, with curved corners and slightly inclined sides, but in long section they are more like a transporter or roll-on-roll-off ferry. A breathing space between the flattened roof of the unit and the underside of the arch evokes a train going through a tunnel, but the transport aesthetic, while pleasing, is thankfully not overplayed. They have also been described as dustpans, dustbins, bottle banks, handbags and Portakabins. Take your pick. In fact they were made exactly as the hull of a ship is:
rolled steel sections with a continuously welded mild steel skin. Conventional steel fabricators proved to be too costly, and they ended up being built - inexpensively - by Merseyside Ship Repairers.
The scale of the units meant they needed a police escort along the M62, and there is a satisfying sense of them arriving and being parked. But despite their temporary, transportable look, they are complex permanent structures and an exacting fit-out was carried out on site. Symmetrical in plan, the two middle units have a fully enclosed central staircase leading up to a WC block, which people can access direct from outside, while the two end units are double height spaces.
All have a GRP nose piece, with a window embedded above the canopy door.
The canopy/doors open to reveal glazed front elevations, with solid doors leading up to the WC blocks in the middle units. The underside of the canopies are clad with birch faced plywood and have recessed lights.
They also perform several important functions: they provide covered outside space, solar shading, security and they clearly signal when the venue is open.
The interior spaces have been worked to allow maximum circulation. Each room is linked by passageways through the existing jack arches. The bars in the two double height end rooms face each other through the three interconnected jack arch openings.
The middle rooms have off-white serverystyle bars which plug the back wall. It is in these two rooms that the vehicle aesthetic is most strongly continued. The low contoured ceiling, the sculpted staircase cutting through the central space, the cabin-like WC block with recessed stainless steel sinks, integrated seating and the moulded nose piece like a prow with its elongated porthole, suggest this time a ferry - a port out, starboard home one, of course.