Contact Theatre By Sheppard Robson

COMMENT | Buildings can be symbols of adventure

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James Jones SR

Manchester and the North West was a fertile ground for innovation in the latter half of the twentieth century; a place where challenging, progressive architecture got built, writes James Jones of Sheppard Robson. Whether to our taste or not, many post-war and late century buildings talk of a confident city, ready to take risks. We need to think carefully how we preserve, repurpose and rethink the buildings that emerged out of this confidence.

We often associate the protection of buildings with heritage structures, particularly those that are listed. We have seen great examples of this recently, from Manchester Town Hall to Halle St Peter’s. However, the process of refurbishing and extending Manchester’s young people’s art venue, Contact Theatre, has made me think about how innovative modern buildings also need careful stewardship. This is not to say that every post-war building can or should be retained – the city has to grow and modernise – but our cities need to strike a careful balance between new and old.

Contact openly describe its remarkable building on Oxford Road as being ‘marmite’. Not everybody likes it, or gets it, but once you’ve seen it you won’t forget it. Our current project includes the remodeling and extension of a building that was originally designed in the 1970s as the Manchester Young People’s Theatre as part of the University of Manchester, and then refurbished and extended in the 1990s by notable architect Alan Short.

The building we inherited pushed boundaries in its adoption of sustainable technology in a time when eco-architecture was not widespread. Short, preoccupied with inherently low-energy buildings for much of his career, designed two naturally ventilated auditoria at Contact. This remarkable feat, considering a theatre’s intensive use, is announced outwardly by the super-sized brick and zinc ventilation chimneys. The building’s technical innovation intrinsically forms its bravura architectural expression.

Short’s intent – a moment in time for our city and a symbol of daring and adventure – needs preserving, and Contact knows this. Indeed, the building is part of its character. But the building also has to be useful, and financially sustainable, as an 21st century arts venue. Our designs for Contact will bring a much-improved visitor experience and fully accessible, co-located circulation to all public areas and performance spaces. The design provides additional performance and conference facilities, new office accommodation and significant opportunities for increased community and hires activity, all working to increase the venue’s future economic sustainability.

The result will be a modern facility that is housed predominantly within the distinctive building that is inseparable from the adventurous identity of the theatre itself, new elements responding to architectural cues from the 90s building, and the whole project being an opportunity to maintain the building’s urban status and place in the imagination of mancunians.

Many buildings from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s aren’t protected in the same way as historic structures. This can threaten the existence of these buildings, but the lack of listing also creates opportunity, because they are more easily open to radical interventions and repurposing which can lead to interesting additions to our cities. Post-war buildings were often undertaken with great seriousness by men and women – politicians, developers, designers – who were proud of their northern cities and hopeful for their future. Sometimes these buildings still have plenty to offer our 21st century urban environments.

City Tower Manchester

Take City Tower, the building that houses Sheppard Robson’s Manchester studio, which has undergone radical interventions at various times. The original 1960s building has successfully flexed to maintain relevance as the world has changed around it. Ten years ago, the mall was opened up by Stephenson Bell, and more recently the arrival sequence of spaces has been transformed by ID:SR Sheppard Robson, responding to new ways of meeting and flexible working.  These iterative changes over time have not diminished the original character of the building but allowed it to remain a valuable part of the city, whether that’s responding to the changing urban fabric, adding public realm, amenity spaces or acknowledging changing lifestyle or working patterns.

The LJMU Aldham Robarts Library in Liverpool is another case. We are now designing an extension to the 1994 Austin-Smith:Lord library which is set in a conservation area amongst listed buildings. Our pavilion-like addition had to be an appropriate response to this historic setting but, interestingly with this project, the modern building is being used as the main reference point, with the materiality of our design taking its cues from the 90s architecture. This is an example of planners and architects looking to preserve the original intent and vision of modern buildings, not just historic ones.

There is a challenging side to this: how do we decide which buildings are preserved and adapted and which should just be rebuilt? This complicated question – which includes a consideration of architectural value, sustainable reuse, and potential adaptability – needs careful consideration on a case-by-case basis. But part of this discussion, in my opinion, should be the cultural value of our best mid- and late- twentieth century buildings, harnessing the spirit of adventure in which they were built and using this to ensure they still contribute purposefully to our 21st Century cities.

  • James Jones is partner at architecture practice Sheppard Robson

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