Northern Exposure At CUBE, 113 Portland Street, Manchester until 20 August
Graeme Russell, director of CUBE, says that the brief to the 10 contributors to this exhibition asked them to unlock, in some way, the creative processes that inform their work. An exercise in demystification, then, which is Russell's thing - he is constantly trying to take CUBE to a broader public while still keeping his architects happy. David Hands and John Novak of the University of Salford are guest curators, and the ambition is that 'Northern Exposure' becomes biennial, with different curators for each show.
Hands and Novak offered each of their creatives a three cubic metre pavilion, and the opportunity to show a short video about themselves within the space. Arkheion invited clients and collaborators to say to camera why they think the practice is tops.
Sagar Stevenson drove a motorcycle-combination around the streets of Manchester's Ancoats and Northern Quarter, filmed the buildings and the people, and cut the footage to Jonathan Richman and Roger Miller. This exhibition mix is entertaining on a number of levels.
'Northern Exposure' exhibits 10 'emergent' practices; and you may need some clarification. Emergent means 'new' - Total Architecture's business cards are hardly dry yet - but it also means 'established in the north-west, and now being recognised further afield' (OMI, Urbed and Landscape Projects have been practising for years). In the future, it might be helpful if the rubric was a little more defined. Meanwhile, if you bear in mind that what you see here is, broadly speaking, the work of practices whose turnover and CV may not be the greatest, but who claim creative integrity to be paramount, you will not be far off.
The exhibition is a tight fit. The route begins with Arkheion on the ground floor, and ends with Sagar Stevenson in the basement. Arkheion almost closes the show before it opens. You enter its pavilion across an arching glass bridge. The practice came out of the Urban Splash in-house design team, and images of its previous projects, mostly warehouse-to-loft conversions, are printed on shower curtaining. The enclosure is suffocating, making Psycho feel like the softer option.
Next is interior designer Judge Gill, which has done various bars, clubs and shops in the north-west, and which here creates an enclosure of heavy chromium-steel pipes, suspended like wind-chimes, which you must enter to view a moody video, which resembles a parade of witnesses on Crimewatch. The pipes have got various things encapsulated within them, but I was still queasy from the shower curtain, and found them intimidating.
OMI presents a steel-wired cat's cradle that snares small tags, each naming a creative influence, such as Lego and Le Corbusier.
Its amusing day-in-the-life-of-the-practice video features Mr Thomas's Chop House, a particularly fine Manchester pub, and helped me over the trauma of the curtain and the pipes.
Urbed shows its Brighton and Bristol masterplans, and a nifty overhead projection.
Arca thoughtfully offers an assemble-theperspex-shapes, game-for-the-kids option.
Shed KM (with The Collegiate and The Matchworks in Liverpool) is the second practice here to demonstrate the importance of Urban Splash as an imaginative client in the region. (Total Architecture is the third. ) Landscape Projects' pavilion is as ordered, thoughtful and well presented as you would expect of such an experienced set-up.
Wilkinson Evans Jeffries 'expresses' a prize-winning scheme for a Dutch nursery that, it seems, has been a long time coming.
The pavilion is lined with giant tulip wallpaper, which may be clichéd, but will easily hook you in.
Finale: Sagar Stevenson and its motorbike video, which must be viewed from inside a motorbike caravan. This cheeky 1950s mini-Airstream-like-trailer is as cute as Doris Day. Inside it is a Just William den, lined with architects' pin-ups - Flatiron, Guggenheim - and on-the-road sketches.
Le Corbusier's journals this is not, but neither are these boys out to change the world, or even earn a living. They send you out with a smile on your face, rather than with an extended CV and three client references stuffed into your hand.
Once again Russell has introduced a show into CUBE that extends the repertoire.
Like all true originals, 'Northern Exposure' now exists to be improved upon. So, in addition to defining the term 'emergent north-west architecture and design practices' a little more clearly, future curators should cap the budget, not just the volume, of each pavilion.
That done, we can look forward to enjoying the sequel at least as much as the original.
Phil Griffin is a freelance writer