Best of the North West | The Lowry, Salford
Within the ever expanding MediaCityUK with its thousands of office workers, tram lines, residential towers, funky, techy, spaces and plazas for further generations of pop-up people, it is difficult to remember the times that led to its emergence.
I have chosen this building for the series partly because it symbolises so well the leap of faith that has to be taken at times to get anything done. It has also, on balance, withstood the harshest critic of any building – the test of time.
Acres of contaminated docks, depopulation and sceptical voices did not add up to either a low risk option nor any cast iron guarantees of success. It is indeed a tightrope walk, or maybe a contorted arabesque, between success and failure as many Millennium projects found to their cost. Back in the 1990s to dream of Ballet Rambert in Ordsall and a steel clad theatre with 830,000 people through the doors, making it the North West’s most visited cultural venue, was beyond fanciful.
At the time of opening in 2000, the building was described as “big, brash and not exactly beautiful” by the Independent’s critics. The idea was that the Lowry would put Salford onto the cultural map as a place people would want to visit ”because of the exuberant prescence of this new kid on the block”.
Reading the reviews from the time, reminds me of the wonderful, eternal clash between the anxious spreadsheet planners and leaders, who are able to engage with those who spend many nights throwing ideas around in the pub. We need both and the Lowry has stood the test of time, not least through the commercial and professional efforts of the team there. Delivering on dreams is not easy but this wonderful building continues to delight me every time I go.
It was designed with a collision of industrial shapes clad in stainless steel reflecting the grey sky and water. They didn’t know at the time that is was to also reflect MediaCityUK with its super corporate straight lines and digital streaks of colour.
The construction phase was recorded by Len Grant’s timeless photography. This inspired me at that time to learn more about the construction process. The high-wire gymnastics of the construction workers were essential before any artistic performance could take place for any audience.
The interior of the building has been described as more Jackson Pollock than Lowry with its orange and purple plumage. Michael Wilford’s Liberty print shirt and tie perhaps inspired it? The colour scheme is eternally safe guarded – a sort of Millennium heritage protection; the architect anticipating some future spreadsheet type who may want to slap on a bit of low maintenance magnolia, maybe?
The building defies its own clichés and succeeds in being enormously functional. It accommodates the self-conscious desires of the time for bright colours, sloping floors and triangular spaces. Its next challenge is to accommodate gallery improvements and find a way to turn round to face down the glare from the unanticipated Alchemist.
In another 20 years, it may well be the theatre hidden way below its towering neighbours who still love living and working near a performing arts centre. They may not remember anyone’s name but will be grateful for all those 20th century types with their overactive imaginations.
Let’s leave the last astonished line for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, esteemed Salfordian, composer & conductor:
“I can’t believe that it’s there,” he said. “Little did I imagine, when I used to look over from my bedroom at the ships and wharves and shunting yards, that one day there would be this extraordinary arts centre.”