Nearly 30 years ago six people clubbed together to buy a derelict chapel in Halifax for £25. Evans Vettori has helped fulfil their vision of it as a thriving arts centre
Robert Evans, architect of Square Chapel Arts Centre, which is appended to Halifax’s wonderful 1779 grade I listed Piece Hall, confesses that its BREEAM-rated loos do smell a bit ripe at the moment – but that, he adds brightly, is actually the sweet smell of success. Because nobody, including the arts centre itself, seems to have been prepared for the immense popularity of the venue since Evans’ Vettori’s unifying intervention.
But that’s thespians for you. Here, they’re so enthralled with the roar of the crowd that they’ve forgotten about the smell of the greasepaint, so it looks like the arts centre staff will need to change the filters on the waterless urinals more often to deal with the inevitable result of so many locals slaking their thirsts, cultural and literal.
T’was not ever thus. Halifax, in Yorkshire’s West Riding, may have fared better economically than its neighbours when the industrial revolution killed the cottage industry of weaving, but Piece Hall’s 315 little rooms, where ‘pieces’ of cloth were traded, were no longer viable – a fate to be visited on the mass produced iteration of the craft in the 20th century.
The town’s dependence on weaving is manifested by the massive 19th century Dean Clough carpet factory running along the banks of Hebble Brook, which finally closed down in 1983. New owners are now attempting to fill its half mile long volume with hotels, leisure, events and tech start-ups. The Viaduct, home of the Northern Broadsides theatre company, is one of them; and it, along with the Square Chapel Arts Centre in town, is helping keep Halifax’s cultural life alive in the wake of recession and funding cuts.
When in 1988 the six founders of the arts centre bought Thomas Bradley’s 1772 Palladian red brick, grade II*-listed building – described by Pevsner as ‘one of Yorkshire’s greatest Georgian chapels’ – it was in such a parlous state that they got the whole thing for £25.
They renovated the roof first, not because it was in any worse a state than the rest of the structure, but so they could begin using the space. There are even old photos of classical quartets performing wearing hard hats, with the audience wrapped in supplied blankets to ward off the cold for lack of glass in the window openings.
In time offices were created from unwanted furniture and a bar built from old kitchen cabinets was installed in the chapel’s lower entrance level. A small group of volunteers meantime helped keep the music events, theatre productions and cinema nights running on a shoestring budget.
Current director David McQuillan started in 2003 as an outreach worker before his success raising funds for the nearby Orangebox youth project saw him appointed in 2008 to do the same at the Square Chapel. Funding was secured from the Arts Council after Evans Vettori’s dramatic arrowhead roof proposal beat stiff competition to win the commission to restore Bradley’s chapel and link it to the imposing colonnade and courtyard of Piece Hall. Square Chapel then needed match funding. The lion’s share was to come from The Monument and George Martin Trusts and Garfield Weston and Wolfson Foundations, but McQuillan gives equal credit to the volunteers who baked scones and sold them during performance intervals, saying that whether it was 20p, £20 or £200,000, every penny went into the pot.
The steel roof, formed of triangular infill panels in brown, green and yellow, might be the most conspicuous aspect of the design, but Evans Vettori also had to deal with dramatic falls across the site as the town slopes away to the river valley. This results in the sectional drop at the east end, where the firm installed a grand concrete stair to take people up to the main lobby from the lower level entrance, new offices and back of house spaces. It also holds the structure back from the stabilised west wall of Bradley’s chapel, creating a triple height space, revealed it in its entirety to theatregoers, diners and bar flies alike: the visible roof line of a past extension, blind windows and stone dressings – even the old burglar alarm, charmingly redundant.
Though economic factors might have dictated the thickish steel sections, the roof is a delicate thing nonetheless. Evans Vettori and the engineers could not impose any new loads on either of Bradley’s structures, be it Piece Hall or the chapel. So everything is carried on three structural trees – a metal metaphor, McQuillin tells me, for the real ones that were removed to build the new arts centre. The trees are echoed again in the leafy colours on the angled canopy soffit, which has led the two entrances to be dubbed either the ‘spring’ or ‘autumn’ bridges – green is the dominant shade on one, and brown on the other. And there’s even the etching of branches on the south wall glazing to stop solar gain. It’s no coincidence that McQuillan, a fine artist by training, spends his spare time painting woods.
But then everything here seems to have happened through some osmotic activation of the will. After the 2010 bid win, during design development and inspired by the vision, even the Arts Council felt it could be pushed to include another auditorium if it provided extra funding. With nearly £4 million secured, Evans Vettori initially imagined this as a triangle to the west, reflecting the arrowhead; then placed it to the north near the 235ft Square Chapel spire, the last vestige of the burned-out 1855 church the then congregation had expanded into. In the end it was English Heritage, keen to reinstate the line of the former accretions to the back wall of the Piece Hall, that had the architect position it squarely to the south.
The simple, burnished copper box that Evans Vettori built, sitting on its rectangular stone plinth, restores a sense of the tight-knit quality of Blackledge, the lane leading down to the river, and frames views to the woods on the other side of the valley. Internally, it also helps define the third face of the triangular lobby, creating a hidden space that, entered from its western apex, expands with sudden drama. Beneath the canopy, views out to Blackledge and the south Rose window of the Square Chapel generate a strange but pleasing urban quality; a large, enclosed interior space offering mediated views out to the street, the steeple and ultimately to the expanse of the Piece Hall itself.
Completion of the £6.6 million arts centre has also been blessed with serendipity. On the other side of the spire Halifax’s new library is rising, drawing people down through the courtyard; and next to that, galvanised by the Square Chapel’s success, a nascent Calderdale Industrial Museum looks to emulate its business model.
None of this was considered when the arts centre budgeted £360,000 as its annual takings from its bar and kitchen. McQuillan tells me they took £20,000 in their first week. Nor did they factor in LDN Architects’ restoration of the Piece Hall with Gillespies' (a tad heavy handed) landscaping of the courtyard, but it’s obviously had an effect. Square Chapel Arts Centre predicted average nightly audience numbers rising from 100 to 120 – they’ve now reached 160.
From the original six founders, a staff of 55 now man the centre with 70 volunteers still coming in to do a shift, just because they want to. With its south facing terrace, it also seems to have become the go-to spot for local office workers’ Friday night drinks. It’s hard to write a dispassionate account of Square Chapel, as in a sense, the physical architecture is secondary to the vision and tenacity of those who brought it about; for whom the idea of the arts centre was as concrete and permanent as the cast bar the architect has designed for the main space. Those core unwavering qualities were there from the day a cellist first turned up in a hard hat and drew a note in a derelict chapel.
£6.6m project cost
1,927m2 gross internal area
£2,462 build cost per m²
£1.7m raised by Square Chapel Trust
Client Trustees of Square Chapel
Architect Evans Vettori
Main contractor Wildgoose Construction
Landscape and planning consultant, landscape Re-Form (Leeds)
Structural engineer/ M&E/lighting & acoustic consultant Arup
QS/planning supervisor Bernard Williams Associates
Project manager Kier
Theatre consultant Theatresearch
Access consultant Alison Grant