By Leah Dolan, CNN
Manchester (CNN) — “It might sound strange, but I’m going to show you the toilets,” said Ellen van Loon, the RIBA-award winning Dutch architect tasked with building the UK’s largest arts and culture center since the Tate Modern in 2003. “We had a DJ in here,” Van Loon points to the far left-hand corner of the sprawling unisex water closet. “Any space can be a performance space, even the toilets.”
That is the lofty premise behind Aviva Studios — an ambitious eight-years-in-the-making architectural project hoping to enable the “next step,” as Van Loon put it, in performing arts. With a hefty estimated price tag of £240 million (approximately $292 million), one might assume the new cultural hub to be another crown jewel of the UK capital. Yet the 13,350sq ft Post Industrial structure sits in the center of the city of Manchester — around 200 miles north of London.
Investment of this kind in the north of England is rare. Earlier this month, the UK government announced it had abandoned plans to connect Manchester to the middle of the country via the high speed railway line HS2 — Britain’s biggest current infrastructure project. The region’s arts sector, too, has seen a steady decline in government funding over the last decade. But the area might now see some long-awaited expenditure, as Arts Council England (a charity and public organization sponsored by the UK’s Department of Culture) announced last year it would invest £383.5 million in 282 arts organizations across the north of the UK between 2023-2026. Arts Council England have also pledged a further £9.9 million annual investment in Aviva Studios until 2026.
During a press tour ahead of the building’s official opening, leader of Manchester City Council, Bev Craig, called the project “a long-term dream.” Manchester, she told international journalists, is “a city that had its place over 100 years ago during the Industrial Revolution.” Many are hoping projects like Aviva Studios will help the city find its place again.
‘The walls are always in the way’
Van Loon has worked with Rotterdam-based architecture firm OMA on structures such as Portugal’s Casa de Música, Qatar National Library in Doha and the CCTV tower in Beijing. She was wary of the center becoming another faceless regeneration project. “I was really concerned that this type of Post Industrial architecture would disappear and the city would become full of glossy new buildings,” she told CNN. “I’m always worried about cities trying to look the same. A city like Manchester might say it wants to look like London and I think that’s a pity. It’s really important to keep these characteristics.” Instead, the building’s raw concrete exterior and exposed steel connections are an homage to Manchester’s history as the world’s first industrial city.
OMA won the bid to design the arts and culture center back in 2015 with a proposal that took Van Loon just 10 days to draw up, though she admits there have been significant changes to the original blueprint. “We had no design for the back of house area,” she said, alluding to the section of the building that features a green room, dressing rooms and on-site offices. “We didn’t even have a model, but we had an idea. It really was an idea.”
The plan was to make a theater and exhibition space that is fully adaptable, flexible and customizable to any artist or event in the books. “Most performing areas nowadays are designed fairly traditional with your fixed seating area. There is very little flexibility in those spaces,” she said. “The walls are always in the way, because every artist wants to expand the sides or the back. That made us think, ‘Okay, of course you have to make some walls, but let’s put them where they are obstructing as little as possible.’”
Much of what you see when entering Aviva Studios is temporary or removable, made possible by a sprawling canopy of ceiling rigs that envelop the building’s two main performance spaces: “the Warehouse” and “the Hall.” Set design, performers or production apparatus can be hung via a complex grid in the warehouse, which has a working weight of 200 tonnes.
Reaching almost 69 feet high, the warehouse can be convincingly transformed into any type of space. It’s also long enough to fit a Boeing 747 inside. On October 13, the warehouse became a futuristic runway for “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle’s interpretative dance performance “Free Your Mind” — inspired by the 1999 classic “The Matrix.” Dreamt up by British stage designer Es Devlin, a soft white circular wall hangs inside the warehouse. Two white portholes at either end of the runway open into the wall, which become stage right and stage left for the dancers. Above, a long block of LED screens dangle down from the grid. The effect of hanging set design as opposed to building it from the ground up lends an immersive, 3-dimensional quality to the space. It’s the type of “contemporary thinking” Van Loon hoped her building could engender.
There’s also a more traditional theater — the hall — which can accommodate approximately 1,600. It’s approximate because the hall boasts a similarly fluid design: While the fixed balcony holds 640, the 323 seats on the lower level can be entirely removed to allow for more standing capacity, while the stage gives way to a sunken pit large enough for an 80 piece orchestra.
Most of the walls Van Loon was structurally obligated to install are removable, too. The pièce de résistance of Aviva Studios is the building’s unique ability to conjoin the warehouse and hall space together. A 36-feet-high detachable acoustic wall is all that separates the two areas — sound-proofed so the building can host two events simultaneously, but flexible enough to be removed entirely. This architectural feat was one of the flourishes of Boyle’s opening night. While attention remained on the lead dancer twisting in a Gareth Pugh-designed ethereal red dress, the back of the stage began to rise up like a giant curtain revealing a hidden depth that made the stage look more like a street.
“It’s rare that I have a client where I propose a new concept and they go along with you,” said Van Loon. “Normally they say, ‘Oh, has that been done somewhere else?’ And when I say ‘No,’ the answer is ‘Okay, no, too risky.’ But I think this building, whatever you might think about it — maybe some users don’t like it, some others do — is at least an example of how things can be done in a different way.”
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