28 March 2018

Cobden Works – shortlisted for a RIBA North West award

A new angle or two on architecture for the arts

As an arts organisation that can trace its origins back to its formative years sailing around the British Isles as the UK’s first ever touring theatre ship, there’s a few distinctive nautical points of reference to our new home in Salford – despite the fact that we’re no longer in the immediate vicinity of water.

In fact we’re a good mile or two from Salford Quays, where our boat the Fitzcaraldo was once moored, and now settled among an interesting mix of neighbours that define the light industrial environs of our new home – a food factory, an electrical wholesaler and a waste recycling plant to name a few.  So, it’s great to have some sea-faring reminders built into the very fabric and structure of our new home.  More on these later.

But first the location.  As a softly disruptive force in outdoor arts, there’s something quite maverick about building the UK’s first purpose-built outdoor arts complex in an area more attuned to light industry rather than placing ourselves among an established coterie of like minded creatives.  That said, the fact that land prices are cheaper in this particular M6 postcode district of Salford was also a strong determining factor in where we’ve now dropped our metaphorical anchor.

Walk along Cobden Street and the profile of our new home casts a distinctive asymmetric profile on the urban landscape.  Designed by Liverpool-based Architectural Emporium, Cobden Works is an intentionally quirky but supremely efficient reworking of a collection of re-purposed industrial sections which now form the ‘creative industry’ element to our new home.

The challenge for our architects was to produce a mixed use outdoor arts creative hub that could bring the disparate elements to our organisation under one roof.  Essentially, we needed a heavy duty space which could accommodate the fabrication of structures, props and moving pieces for our shows, as well as a second ‘cleaner’ workshop for making more fragile pieces such as costumes and lanterns.  And given our growing role as a provider of  training it was essential to have a dedicated area for rehearsals, shared learning events and masterclasses.

The other two important pre-requisites were new offices and meeting rooms and perhaps, most importantly of all for an arts organisation that marches (or parades) on its stomach, a fully equipped kitchen and eating area.  One critical final aspect that played a pivotal role in the design of the space was the need for the site to be fully secure.

The final result is a complex of buildings that is anything but complex.  Cobden Works is a pleasingly simple collection of buildings which follow a linear sequence to the new wigwam- shaped new build element at its far end.  It is in this metal clad geometric conundrum that you will find our first floor  offices, ground floor meeting rooms and a kitchen and dining area.  The first nautical reference in this area is the private ‘break out’ booths designed for quiet working, housed in a feature wood-panelled section with internally glazed windows, whose shape and form are an unashamed pastiche of the kind of cabin you might find on a North Sea ferry.  But the sense of the nautical doesn’t end there.  A key distinctive structural and architectural feature of this space is the mast-like central pole whose asymmetric angle offers an off-kilter sense of what life aboard the Fitzcaraldo might have been like in a Force 2 gale somewhere between Forth, Tyne and Humber.

Take the teak-wooden tread staircase down to the ground floor and Cobden Works reveals the brilliance of its design – an open plan kitchen and eating area that opens out on to an expansive tree-planted courtyard area that provides a surprising, almost Mediterranean-feeling, al fresco space.   The retention of the weathered white paint on the gable end of the former factory wall gives an historical narrative point of reference to the building’s past – while also giving a textured canvas to the considerably verdant internal planting scheme.

Meanwhile, back indoors, the continuation of the pyramid’s central pole through to the ground floor gives this space a mid-ship cabin feel, as does the feature bookcase and display area for our  collection of books and awards.

The success of Architectural Emporium’s design is the way in which the building allows it day to day users and visitors to see around the space before they actually encounter each room.  The absence of a staffed reception area is more than compensated for by the minimalist but extensive entrance hallway which invites you into a small seating space with generous internal views across the courtyard.  There is very much the sense of the outside and inside being a fluid concept in this area, with doors from the courtyard breaking into both the eating area and the  training space.  In a relaxed, open plan way, this is a building that invites you to explore both its indoor and outdoor spaces.

It’s also a building of textures and colours.  The  yellow mustard floor training room is in stark contrast to the warm crimson ceiling in the hallway, while the wooden parquet floored tiled entrance is a pleasing counterfoil to the pre-rusted metal work that frames the front door.  Polished plywood walls also give the entrance hallway an on-trend mid century Scandi feel, a vibe that is consolidated further with 1950s style teal and mustard occasional chairs and beech wood coffee tables.

With all the excitement of the new build elements, it’s easy to dismiss the two workshop areas as just ‘workshop areas’.  But these important spaces have been cleverly re-purposed from their light manufacturing origins to create warm, safe and water-tight areas that can handle a multitude of concurrent projects by our team of fabricators and artists.  The installation of new power sources, ventilation and heating means that we can design and fabricate new pieces on an industrial scale and move them into our outer parking area for dispatch.  Critically, their close proximity to our yellow floored rehearsal and training area means that creative practitioners attending our masterclasses and learning programmes can see live work in action.

Ultimately, our new home is so much more than just an outdoor arts creative hub – a descriptor which really doesn’t do justice to the clever way in which the separate elements of the building come together to animate people and bring ideas to life.

One final nod to our nautical origins is less of a feature, but more a manifestation of how the building works.  On the Fitzcaraldo, food was an important staple of day to day life on the seas between shows.  Now, at breakfast, lunch and other communal events the kitchen, dining and courtyard areas perhaps exemplify the power of this building’s design – the way it brings people together around food.  Not bad for an organisation which has built its first 25 years on helping people all around the world come together for shared collective experiences.

Cobden Works was completed in August 2017 by contractors Skyline Construction, working to designs by Liverpool-based architects Architectural Emporium.

In March 2018, Cobden Works was shortlisted for a RIBA Award.

Cobden Works is lead funded by Arts Council England with generous support from, CHK Charities LtdGarfield Weston FoundationOglesby Charitable Trust and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.