AJ Retrofirst Stories: Manchester's Contact Theatre

8th September 2020

As part of their series exploring projects that have saved buildings from the bulldozers or brought them back to life, the Architects' Journal spoke to James Jones, Partner at Sheppard Robson, about the practice's nearly completed refurbishment and extension of the highly unusual 1990s Contact theatre in Manchester designed by Alan Short + Associates. Here, a process of co-creation – structured engagement bringing end-users’ expertise into the design process – was integral to the design.

Read the full article here.

Tell us about the project.

The design includes significant remodelling of the existing accommodation at Alan Short + Associates' ground-breaking youth-led Contact Theatre in Manchester, as well as creating 300m² of additional space.

Short’s 1990s design – itself a refurbishment of a the 1960s BDP University Theatre building – has been adapted through close dialogue with the original design team and analysis of the fabric of the building that made it become the first naturally ventilated theatre in the UK.

But alongside this research and dialogue, co-creation – structured engagement bringing end-users’ expertise into the design process – was just as integral. It should be used much more regularly, especially when it comes to the reuse of modern buildings with established, ongoing uses and users.

The process ensured that the building continues to be more than just a space to see a performance; it is far more deeply embedded with the community and new ways of engaging young people in the arts.

What were the challenges of the existing building?

The quirky form of Contact’s ventilation chimneys speak of an organisation that does things differently. A key part of its identity is its level of inclusivity and the way it places youth-governance at its core, making the preservation of the spirit of the organisation as important as the changes made to the building itself.

We were very aware that ‘our’ architectural approach needed to reflect identity as well as make physical upgrades – it had to feel like it still “belonged” to Contact and not simply respond to the sensibility of the architect. For this, Contact created its consultant group – Con:Struct, a team of young people associated with the Theatre that played a pivotal role in ensuring that the developing design reflected not just the needs but also the ‘attitude’ of its members, staff and audience.

What have been the main lessons from the project that you could apply on other developments?

Firstly, the principals of co-creation were vital to the success of this project. The Con:Struct team had their say on everything from the appointment of the design team and contractor to the colours used within the building’s interiors. This process has brought home an important point: the renewal of modern buildings which have embedded, successful uses/users, requires the same level of delicacy and compassion as used when working on historic structures. A sensitivity and technical approach to upgrading buildings also has to be balanced with an almost spiritual appreciation of what the building means to the people that rely on it.

In the case of the Contact Theatre, this level of care was integral as the building serves the communities in several ways, including the arts, health and science wellbeing space, the first of its kind in any UK theatre, funded by Wellcome. This space is to serve the immediate local community, which is very ethnically and economically diverse, making it a genuine community space – and it was vital that the spaces felt improved, yet familiar.

Secondly, even in unashamedly forward-looking environments like Manchester’s Oxford Road Corridor, the sensitive re-use of existing buildings can contribute immensely to future development and the sustainable growth of our cities.

We have already experienced this in several buildings within sight of Contact: the reused structure of The University of Manchester’s Alan Gilbert Learning Commons and the bright orange of CityLab’s 1.0 - the restored and extended former Royal Eye Hospital - both further demonstrate the value, possibility and excitement that creative reuse offers.