This afternoon, Manchester’s planning committee is expected to approve the £110m Factory arts centre. Ahead of the meeting, Place North West met with architect Ellen van Loon, to discuss the Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s vision for the flagship cultural venue at St John’s.
Netherlands-based OMA was named by Allied London and Manchester City Council as the winner of the competition to design The Factory at the end of 2015, for many a surprise choice from a shortlist that included Zaha Hadid and St John’s masterplanner SimpsonHaugh & Partners. The arts centre is OMA’s first major public building in the UK.
Van Loon is lead architect for the £110m project, alongside OMA founder Rem Koolhaas. She said: “When we first saw the brief from the client our immediate thought was ‘This is the first client who wants what we want.’
“A theatre is not just a nice building, but a machine through which to promote the art. We weren’t interested in doing a building as an empty shell, we want it to be a quality of which it will be best judged at least 10 years after completion.”
The Factory is due to become the permanent home for the Manchester International Festival, which will change from a bi-annual festival into the operator of the venue.
“MIF is as experimental as we are,” Van Loon said. “It is delivering new forms and new concepts in art and theatre, which is reflected in our design for the building.
“The location in Manchester is special to us. The OMA office is based in a second tier industrial city, Rotterdam, and Manchester is similar. With second tier cities, the people are more experimental, and are looking for improvements. Working in Manchester felt familiar.
“As an outsider, I think there is more possible in Manchester than people think. We were new and brave; we didn’t try to second guess what would go down well here. I think when you’re in a culture different to your own, you can be braver. Often taking a risk in your own culture can be a lot scarier.”
The brief for the Factory was for it to be large and flexible enough to allow multiple artworks “of significant scale” to be shown and created on site simultaneously, accommodating combined audiences of up to 7,000 people.
According to van Loon, the design reflects the broad demographic of people expected to use The Factory.
“We wanted it to be appealing for the very young, and for the older audience,” she said. “The main warehouse is a vast, functional box, with no limit in terms of sound, while the theatre is more traditional, for those who want to watch Shakespeare in a velvet chair.
“A priority for the building is its engagement with a younger audience, and to give a huge boost to another generation, including for those who are not currently provided for, to give them space and stimulation to develop.”
The Factory is set to be largely Government funded through a £78m grant from the Treasury. Manchester City Council will put in £20m, and is also applying for a £7m grant from the Arts Council. Around £5m is being raised from charitable donations.
Construction is due to begin in 2017, with opening scheduled for 2020.
OMA is leading a team on the Factory including Buro Happold, MEP, Arup Acoustics, Gardiner & Theobald, and Deloitte Real Estate.
Manchester City Council’s planning meeting is set to take place on the afternoon of Thursday 12 January.