OMA’s Aviva Studios in Manchester is a victim of time: the original lightweight floating design has slumped to earth as a carbon-heavy hulk
Aviva Studios, the permanent home of the Manchester International Festival (MIF), has opened four years late, over budget at a reported £241 million and with a new name, no longer The Factory. But let’s overlook these well documented details. I for one, welcome the last-minute rebrand that will allow us Mancunians momentary reprieve from the incessant referencing of MADchester. Furthermore, the sale of the name handily recuperates some of the £241 million of public money spent on this ‘landmark cultural venue’ which, as ‘one of the largest and most ambitious developments of its kind in Europe’ knows no bounds.
Given the furore, you’d think you’d find the place easily – but that first step is surprisingly difficult. The building is approachable only from the rear, as the new pedestrian route along Water Street is not yet open and nor is the path along the River Irwell that links to the new Ordsall Chord footbridge. Instead, we must walk along the road (the pavements are also under construction). Apparently, nigh-on a decade is not long enough for the City of Manchester to prepare for the impending crowds. While making our unglamorous way past the Pineapple Line, the oldest passenger railway station in Europe, we get the first glimpse of a curious corrugated steel abutment on the side of the concrete exhibition hall – the window cleaners must be in for the opening.
Not so – these are the new head offices of Factory International, and uncannily resemble the scaffolding of the latest under-construction tower block behind. They look somewhat loosely and temporarily attached to the fluted, windowless, concrete block of the main exhibition hall, which has an entirely different, much more solid expression. It’s intentional, we were later told by the architect, OMA. It is riffing on the impermanent, direct nature of Manchester’s industrial past, although it might be more appropriate to reference the city’s chaotic present.
At last we arrive – to a lot of suspense. We have watched this inelegant hulk gradually haul itself up out of the Irwell over the past five years, with progressively more steel as if steel were a sticking plaster to heal the project’s main misconception – the raising of not one, but two, massive event spaces above ground. This gravity defying act is the way OMA lead architect Ellen van Loon likes to stick it to the man these days, inspired by her rebellious youth listening to – you guessed it – Factory Records.
‘But that’s mad! How will you get theatre sets and exhibitions up there?’ I think. No problem, van Loon (not exactly) says, this lift can hoick up two 50 tonne stage trucks at the same time! AND we’ve made the exhibition space big enough and strong enough to hang a passenger plane!
After all, the brief from MIF was to give artists ‘limitless possibilities’ for their site-specific shows. The phrase ‘the building is simple’ is repeated several times by van Loon, which in 2015, when the building was conceived, perhaps it was. Then, the images were delightful: of lightweight tensile structures, floating on warm air merrily tied back to the massive weight of The Factory from which people spilled out onto a sunny square down to the river below.
But a lot has changed since then. The all-year-round, all-night-long venue had to quieten down due to the encroaching residential tower blocks that the council always approves at the expense of all else (most notably the climate, and secondly any attempt to create an enjoyable or cohesive townscape). But while fighting to contain the noise and never, ever changing the form, OMA proves what happens when you have such brutish dedication to an original sketch idea. The lightweight balloon has morphed into a heavily slumped, scrapyard-bound mess of corrugated steel angles that also contains the new acoustically separated theatre. The sunny square has been eclipsed by a concrete turning circle for stage trucks and the dark, low slung underbelly creates an arrival space with the scale and welcome of an airport.
The building has its roots in a bygone age when ‘floating buildings are fun!’ still cut the mustard. Floating buildings cost a huge amount of carbon in the concrete and steel required to perform such structural gymnastics. Tellingly, the amount of carbon used in the construction and the predicted operational energy is undisclosed. Or, perhaps it was never modelled – it certainly doesn’t appear to have been a priority. Instead, OMA passes the buck to the client, leaving it to resolve the issue when the ship has sailed, stating: ‘Using operational data from 2024 as the benchmark, Factory International’s ambition is to become a zero-carbon emissions organisation by 2038 in line with Manchester’s targets.’
For such a high profile, publicly funded project, in a city aiming for net zero carbon 12 years ahead of the rest of the country, the lack of environmental consideration is absurd. Manchester council must address the gaping hole in its planning policy quickly to start correcting the fact that in 2022, 64% of the city’s direct CO2 emissions came from buildings. This does not include embodied carbon, which undoubtedly would raise the figure significantly.
While the council fixates on ‘cultural capital’ and the £1.1 billion that the building is predicted to bring to the local economy, it seems blind to the damage the project is doing to the city. The scheme is likely to need retrofitting in the next decade to meet the council’s carbon targets, making the investment not only a false economy, but utterly irrelevant in terms of progressing sustainable construction. Rather than squander such rare, big budget projects on gimmicky architecture we must use these precious opportunities to push architectural discourse at this vital moment, which requires genuinely imaginative thinking.
The brief for this building should have stipulated the theatre be net zero carbon theatre when in use, made with local, natural materials and easily accessible on foot – as minimum requirements. In fact, net zero carbon should be the brief not only for this but for all new buildings. If the approximately £18,000 that was spent on each square metre of this building was pushing in this direction, what we see today would look and feel entirely different and be far, far more exciting. We might even be keeping pace with trailblazers of France and Sweden in this regard. This is not simple, it requires a lot more consideration, collective collaboration and, critically, far more demanding planning policy and ambitious architects from the outset.
The brilliant first performance of Free Your Mind in the theatre pointedly asks: ‘Is bigger always better?’ To whom this question is posed is unclear, but in relation to Manchester’s developmental mentality – bigger, higher, stronger, more – it is certainly the way to impress. There is so much of this project that doesn’t feel necessary, making it seem overblown and juvenile in the face of the real challenges our cities must start to tackle. If we are not attempting to get the basics right – building in a well-connected, architecturally cohesive and environmentally conscious way – perhaps it’s time to stop and reconsider what we are doing.
Area in m2, 13.350
Technical architect Allies and Morrison
Technical architect Ryder Architecture
Construction partner Laing O’Rourke
Structure and civil engineer Buro Happold
Structure and civil engineer BDP
Acoustic engineer Level Acoustics
Fire engineer WSP
Stage engineer Charcoal Blue
Vertical transportation Pearson Consult
Landscape design Planit.IE
Transport planning Vectos
Services engineer Buro Happold
FF&E Ben Kelly and Brinkworth
Graphic design Peter Saville and NORTH Design