A unique, ambitious, seven-sided theatre-in-the-round, designed within a grand Edwardian Cotton Exchange in Manchester.
We were initially invited to work on the Royal Exchange project in 1973 by a nascent theatre company in Manchester. At a time when very few new theatres were being built, they had to convince locals that it needed its own new home – one that would become the new civic heart of the city.
The group, led by Braham Murray, Michael Elliott, James Maxwell, Casper Wrede and Richard Negri, had a revolutionary vision for a totally immersive theatre experience for both performers and the audience. All they needed was a home to put this theatre-in-the-round into action.
This was eventually found in the form of the Royal Exchange, a vast, regal, three-domed Edwardian building in the centre of the city. Originally built to trade cotton at the height of Manchester’s industrial pomp, it had closed in 1968 and its Grade II listing ruled out many conventional uses. Having tested its viability with a season of productions, the theatre company negotiated a lease and asked us to develop their concept into a permanent fixture.
Our clients were a group of the company’s artistic directors, designers, actors and technicians, all passionate about their shared vision and the potential of this glorious space. They didn’t want their architects to have any preconceptions about what a theatre should look like or how it should function, and we were appointed on the basis that we had no arts experience whatsoever – the mark of a brave and imaginative client.
This project was a true collaboration and through a constant exchange of ideas, a building slowly emerged. From the start, we envisaged a lightweight structure boldly inhabiting the space, its modernity in stark contrast to the traditional splendour of the hall. The seven-sided construction spans between existing columns to avoid loading the delicate floor and, internally, an odd number of facets ensures that members of the audience do not directly face each other. The completed building was likened to the lunar module that had accomplished its epic journey just a few years earlier.
As testament to the original vision, the design cleverly brings the audience and performers closer together. No member of the audience is more than ten metres away from the centre of the stage, and the dressing rooms, along with the café and front of houses areas, are located within the hall. This means that, as the general public is relaxing in the café, actors might appear in full costume, walking through the space on their way to a performance. Equally, the technical workings of the theatre, usually hidden from the audience, are visible on the outside of the structure.
The original design was completed in 1976, but just twenty years later, the 1996 Manchester bomb caused devastating damage. At this point, we were invited back, and, along with all the necessary restoration work, given the opportunity to make some radical changes to the rest of the space.
We began by addressing the accessibility problems left over from the 70s. A new entrance was inserted into the fabric of the old building, which incorporated a lift up to a glass walkway, also making the very existence of a space-age theatre within this grand old building more visible to passers-by. The café, restaurant and front of house facilities have also been updated. Finally, a new 120 seater studio space has been inserted into the old hall, to enable the theatre to develop ideas, test out new work, and work with different audiences.