Mac gallery: Added spice for a Midlands hotbed

The vibrant new Mac gallery deserves to put the seal on Birmingham's bid to be UK City of Culture, says Jay Merrick
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The Independent Culture

High up on the gallery wall, a big cloud of painted words jostles in beautifully arranged clumps of grey and black sans serif letters. Gazing upwards, people are studying the words quizzically. Bostin... sammich... def-out...

We're in the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham, which has reopened after a £15m architectural makeover and a two-year hiatus. Bab... blart. We might as well be the doomed Babylonians at Belshazzar's Feast, trying to work out what Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin means. We're stumped. We're suddenly culturally dyslexic.

But that Brummie patois, whether one can understand it or not, says it all. This place could only be in Birmingham. Everything about it, from the new architecture to the carpet on the stairs, expresses a very particular language of place, cultural mix, and almost fiercely local aspirations. The Mac, as it has been called since it opened in 1962, embodies the story of Birmingham's cultural outreach so perfectly that even its past imperfections are crucial. The Mac may not get the publicity that will eventually bathe the forthcoming £192m Birmingham Library in glory, but as a demonstration of cultural development it is the true heart of Birmingham's bid to become the 2013 UK City of Culture.

The Mac's four original buildings, lying between the elegant Cannon Hill Park and the River Rea, have been transformed and extended by two sets of architects, Branson Coates, and Chetwoods. The design has produced a 40 per cent increase in arts and public spaces that will handle at least 130 creative workshops every week. But the makeover has had zero effect on the quirkiness of the place – if anything, it has accentuated it.

The complexity of the Mac's birth, in terms of its original struggle for funding and its distinctly ad hoc approach to creating buildings, has been impossible to erase. The buildings were either too hot or too cold, and difficult to see into or out of; yet they became a hotbed that produced some of Mike Leigh's earliest experiments in impro theatre, and for performers such as the internationally acclaimed Indian classical dancer Nahid Siddiqui, and Sampad, the South Asian arts agency that became the Mac's partner in the new redevelopment scheme.

The Mac was founded by John English, an industrial chemist obsessed with the arts. He and his wife, Mollie Randle, were am-dram troupers in the 1950s and their big idea was to create a place where young people could learn about theatre. Birmingham City Council responded with a largesse unthinkable today: they donated a site in Cannon Hill Park. Studios and two small theatres were completed in the mid-1960s. English called it the Midlands Arts Centre for Young People, and it was the first centre of its kind in Britain.

Then in the 1990s, a key thing happened. They took the decision to link all the buildings at ground floor level. That was the moment. Things changed. The physical barriers came down. And that, in turn, paved the way for a modernisation masterplan by Branson Coates Architecture; Chetwoods Architects developed the design further, and delivered the scheme.

And have Chetwoods achieved it with virtuosity, and that moronic phrase "seamless architecture"? No. Is the narrative of the building obvious? No. Are the finishes perfect? No. Is the architectural typology of the buildings now clear? No. But will the new Mac work as a 21st-century hotbed for the arts in and around Birmingham? Yes, and with brio. One of the words in the word-cloud is, predictably, balti. And the Mac is just like that – a sizzling balti bowl into which a colourful melange of new spaces and connections have been heaped and layered as if they were the architectural equivalents of lamb chunks, onions, coriander, and tomato.