Updated January 12, 2017.
The power of a single architect to invigorate the economic fortunes of a city has been tested many times since Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim thrust Bilbao into the cultural limelight in 1998 — with varying degrees of success. For the sprawling conurbation of Greater Manchester in the United Kingdom, it would take an equally prominent architect to wrestle with the region’s complex cultural and historic peculiarities. Enter Rem Koolhaas and Ellen van Loon of OMA, which secured planning approval this week for what will be the British city’s next major venue for the arts.
The Factory will produce and host a wide range of events incorporating theater, music, dance, technology, TV, and media, all under one roof in the heart of Manchester’s city center. The £110-million scheme has been approved as part of the Northern Powerhouse project, a U.K. government initiative to boost the economy of the north of England, which has long lagged behind London’s booming market.
The standout characteristic of OMA’s first major public project in the United Kingdom is its extraordinary scale. The firm’s research has indicated that the center will need to provide services for a catchment area of almost 10 million people, and the firm has designed over 650,000 square feet of mixed-use space to meet the anticipated demand. This is a cultural conduit on an industrial scale, and its name — The Factory — evokes images of Manchester’s heritage as a major manufacturing hub in northern England (the city was full of cotton mills during the 1800s and was home to the world’s first steam passenger railway).
While the city’s history is referenced, symbolically, make no mistake: this venue is intended as a highly contemporary complex for creative arts, particularly with regards to its functionality. As an advocate of cross-programming as a catalyst for activating public institutions, Koolhaas is intent on creating flexible spaces where artistic performances at every conceivable scale can be presented and made, simultaneously, with combined audiences of up to 7,000 at a time.
What might this look like in architectural terms? While many details are still to come, a new series of renderings and diagrams released by OMA illustrate a juxtaposition of two huge volumes, each with a different structural framework and contrasting aesthetics. Firstly, there is a vast tensile structure that stretches out toward the River Irwell. This warped circus top is wrapped with an opaque fabric skin that conceals the activity within. However, fresh renderings and a cutaway axonometric now reveal an intimate theater space that can be transformed to become one with the main performance hall in the adjacent structure.
Even more dramatic is the distorted tent’s larger sibling: the warehouse-style box appears reminiscent of Tate Modern’s famous turbine hall and allows for sky-high performances and massive sets within a vast, column-free space. Its gargantuan scale is highlighted by new renderings of performers gliding through the void, with the surrounding audience clearly dwarfed by the industrial setting.
The huge expanse of floor space will allow for a wide variety of theater layouts and stage configurations; images of the interior show dancers performing with audience seating on all sides. The flexibility of the venue will allow choreographers to break away from the conventions of a standard stage with a front and back, raising the possibility of entirely new performance styles.
Set for completion in 2019, The Factory continues Koolhaas’s exploration of program as a driver for architectural form. The visuals are symptomatic of a firm far less concerned with aesthetics than it is with radical functionality, building on ideas currently being brought to fruition within OMA’s Taipei Performing Arts Center. Whether or not this approach will work for Manchester’s dancers, musicians, choreographers, directors, and producers remains to be seen, but The Factory looks sure to throw the spotlight on the city’s performing-arts scene like never before.