Architecture for shopping's sake
The humble arts centre has changed. Smart new millennium projects have cafes, clubs, even a Football Festival.
Sunday 24 January 1999
This was not the result of inspired card-scratching on the hole's part, but of enlightened lobbying by Salford City Council. Eighteen months from now, this same hole in the ground will have been filled in with the following: a vast new arts centre, designed by Michael Wilford & Partners and named for another local-boy-made-good, the painter LS Lowry; a pot- bellied mediatheque, the Digital World Centre; a hotel, leisure and shopping development; what the Lowry's publicity material refers to as "an entirely new cinema concept by Warner Villages"; and that sine qua non of all urban regeneration projects, a dinosaur-skeleton footbridge from the School of Santiago Calatrava. The Lowry is a National Landmark Millennium Project for the Arts, which means that much of this will have been paid for by a trio of lottery money disbursers - the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Funds and the Millennium Commission - at the urging of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith.
Serious observers of the lottery phenomenon will want to look at another recent jackpot winner before musing on all this, and an obvious example springs to mind. The National Lottery's star-spangled digit has also been hard at work above London during the past year, hovering pleiadically over the capital's Thames-side South Bank arts complex. The upshot of this was the announcement in December 1998 of a so-called "new strategy" for the South Bank, also spearheaded by Chris Smith. Among much else, this promised lottery funding for a comprehensive overhaul of the Royal Festival Hall by the vogueish architectural practice, Allies and Morrison. Next door, meanwhile, there was talk of "a major re-examination of the role of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery" - Lotteryspeak, it has turned out, for tearing them all down and rebuilding them somewhere else on the site.
Half a mile downriver, the Tate Gallery of Modern Art is taking shape inside Giles Gilbert Scott's redundant Bankside Power Station, thanks both to the talents of Swiss architects, Hertzog & de Meuron, and to pounds 50m of Lottery funding. Like the Lowry, the Tate's Bankside gallery is set to open in the spring of 2000. Like the Lowry, too, Bankside will have its very own pedestrian footbridge, courtesy of Sirs Norman Foster and Anthony Caro.
WHERE THEIR RESPECTIVE bridges lead marks an interesting point of difference between the the Manchester and London projects, however. While the South Bank's will allow visitors to take in another shot of musty old high culture in the form of Wren's St Paul's Cathedral, Salford's new footbridge will waft pedestrians straight from the arts centre's 1,730-seat theatre and peerless collection of Lowrys to Manchester United's football ground. Of course, there is no compulsion to attend a game. Should their tastes run to something a little less robust, the Lowry's visitors may instead mitigate their wearying dose of art with a bout of Internet surfing at the Digital World Centre. Failing that, there is always the latest Warner Brothers extravaganza to take in, or a spot of shopping to be done in the complex's High Street retail outlets. By contrast, unfortunates on the South Bank who would like both to browse the Web and "do" Joseph Beuys will currently have to make an inconvenient side trip
to a cybercafe in the West End.
If you are the kind of person who visits arts centres with the old-fashioned notion of merely taking in art, differences between Salford Quays and the South Bank may fill you with a certain nostalgia. When the South Bank was developed in the run-up to the Festival of Britain in 1951, British arts funding was still informed by the quaint idea that art was both good for people and sufficiently pleasing in itself to attract them in large numbers. This being so, galleries and recital halls tended to be built without particular regard to shopping opportunities, in the heretical belief that public amenities should be paid for out of the public purse.
For some idea of just how times have changed since 1951, consider another Lottery-funded project in the North, Stockton's new arts centre, the Arc. Putting into words what the Lowry's publicity material leaves coyly implicit, the Arc openly markets itself as "the first venue to combine ART and LIFESTYLE in equal measure ... bringing art to the masses in the most accessible way possible." This includes providing those same masses with a gym, an "interactive technology facility" and - oh yes - a theatre, albeit one whose auditorium can double usefully as a night club. Among the summer highlights scheduled for the Arc, which has just opened, is a show entitled Total Football, described as "a festival-style celebration of the glorious game".
THERE ARE VARIOUS ways of interpreting all this, although the words "patronising" and "reductivist" tend to recur in most of them. Back in 1951, money for arts funding was taken unvolitionally from the public in the form of taxes, and then handed back to them as the kind of art that caught the eye of the mandarins of Whitehall. If this was an elitist process, it did at least make flattering assumptions about the popular intelligence. But Lottery funding would seem to have changed all that.
The new dispensation apparently runs something like this: if members of the public use their own volition to part with their bread, then it must be returned to them in the form of circuses. It is difficult not to see this change as anticipated by Chris Smith's transformation from arts minister to Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Certainly, the Lowry's conflation of theatre, Internet surfing and football fits Smith's new portfolio to a tee. The idea that Lottery-funded arts centres should have to be self-supporting - a vast irony, given the sums of money now available - is also of a piece with a government that sacrificed socialist principle to win a general election.
At least the Lottery's reductivism doesn't show any regional bias. Before smug Londoners congratulate themselves on having managed to hang on to a prelapsarian South Bank Centre, they should read the small print in the press hand-out issued last month by Elliott Bernerd, the SBC's chairman and a former property developer. An earlier submission for Lottery funding having been turned down, Bernerd's master stroke was to offer up the space currently occupied by the Hayward Gallery, Purcell Room and Queen Elizabeth Hall for redevelopment in the SBC's new bid. It would seem to have done the trick.
And what is to become of the space in question? It will, says the document, "be redeveloped to provide a number of facilities sympathetic to the arts environment". Rehearsal rooms? Restoration studios? An education centre? Not quite. The facilities Mr Bernerd has in mind are shops, cafes and a commercial cinema. No football ground, of course: but then you can't have everything.
Stockton-on-Tees Arc (01642 666600), daily 10am-11pm.
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