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The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: the Bridgewater Hall

Jonathan Schofield and Manchester’s concert hall, is it good enough?

Written by . Published on August 12th 2013.

The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: the Bridgewater Hall

Category: Good

What and when?

The Bridgewater Hall which opened in 1996 and was the first free-standing concert hall built in the UK since 1951


Nicholas Thompson working for RHWL. It’s the home of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra, now under the direction of Sir Mark Elder, 150 years old in 2008 (the orchestra not Elder) and perhaps the best in the country.

There’s a lot going on with the design of this building isn't there?

Yeah, but it works. It's not too cluttered. Especially sweet is the timeline Thompson created. Quality materials are are stratified in almost geological layers. Taken from the canal arm there's red sandstone (to reflect the bedrock of Manchester) rising out of the water which then in turn becomes limestone, metal and glass finished off with a steel crown. A mixture of moods is dictated by the different materials and it all builds to the drama of the great glass prow.

What’s going on with that prow?

The architect wanted the building to clearly connect with the city. The glass prow points to the Town Hall and the commercial centre of Manchester. There’s another story as well, which goes that the architect was aware that the building would stand over a ley line. New Age folk and others claim that these are dead straight invisible lines of energy which cross the world and which our ancestors, with their intimate awareness of Mother Earth, recognized and used as pathways. Some people say aliens travel on them too. Others think they're a ridiculous notion. Anyway this alleged ley line goes from York Minister to Chester Cathedral, right through the prow of the building. So the architect thought it might be a good idea to harness that energy for the orchestra and performers on stage. You heard it here first: the Hallé has the power…from beyond consciousness.

And the inside? Any good?

 Very good in parts, especially the main space, the auditorium. This is the holy of holies the sacred centre of the building, a temple to music, hence the heavy, bronze, temple-like doorways. The design of the room is a cross between the traditional shoe-box style of the older concert halls and the more modern vineyard technique where the seats fall in receding terraces. Up on high are the tremendous steel knuckles and mesh pattern of the ceiling supports. At the far end is the elegant organ from the Marcusson company in Denmark. The seats are clever – tipped up with the auditorium empty, they reflect the music back to the performers on stage as though they were playing to a full house. The auditorium has been complimented frequently on the sound quality it delivers.

The breakout rooms and bars are less successful although they do offer good views north to the city centre. There are artworks too. Perhaps the best is the most obvious. On the inclined plane of the auditorium wall, which rises behind the main entrance, Derryk Healey has applied a flowing artwork that is intended to resemble the warp threads on a giant loom. It’s ok when illuminated, but otherwise a bit weak.

What about the undercroft? Is it a suitable place for a date?

 If you want to thrill your partner with the unusual, it certainly is. The undercroft is spooky and spectacular, a quiet, white space. The whole 22,500 ton building floats on massive springs down here. It doesn’t touch the ground and is separated from terra firma at its edge by a rubber seal. This lack of connection with the physical world prevents the transmission of traffic noise and vibrations from passing trams and buses penetrating into the concert hall. Even the stairs are broken by a couple of centimetres to prevent sound travelling up them. The silence is total. But with red roses and some nice food from upstairs it would be a great place for a very individual date.

What was there before it? 

 The site before the Bridgewater Hall has had a chequered history. In reverse order it goes, Bridgewater Hall, car park, bus station, gas works, houses, fields. When it was bus station in the 50s and 60s the café was a famous meeting point for the gay and lesbian community. The canal basin adjacent to the hall is a widened part of the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal which crossed the city at this point. Over the canal, reflected in its waters, is the brick cotton warehouse of Chepstow House, built by Sam Mendel in the 1870s.

Mendel claimed he was the fastest shipper of cotton around Cape Horn to India and Australia. A year after completing the warehouse, the Suez Canal opened and Mendel went bust. His possessions from Manley Hall, Chorlton, were sold at auction by Christie’s, the sale of his wine collection alone taking six days. The square in front of the hall is named after Sir John Barbirolli, the acclaimed Hallé conductor of the mid-twentieth century. It contains two sculptures: the marble ‘Touchstone’ (1996) by Kam Yasuda, which is great for sliding down, and the bust of Barbirolli (2000) by Byron Howard. The conductor’s name could be hard to pronounce for locals so his Manc nickname was Bob O’Reilly. Some people wished it had stayed as a bus station.

Why? Do a lot of people not like the Bridgewater Hall?

That’s right. As soon as it was built people such as Anthony Wilson and other movers and shakers remarked on it being a weak building lacking in impact. They thought that a place like this, a cultural centre, hosting one of the great European orchestras, should be an iconic modern structure for Manchester. Fair enough, but possibly harsh. The Bridgewater isn’t Sydney Opera House, nor is it the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but it does fit well in terms of scale with this end of the city, it's attractive in its own right and its sharp peak provides a great urban counterpoint with the lush curve of Manchester Central (G-Mex). And with the Imperial War Museum North and the Lowry straining for effect a mile and three-quarters away, the Bridgewater Hall coolly gets on with the job of handsomely hosting good music. Icon making in buildings usually falls on its arse after all: the Millennium Dome, West Bromwich’s The Public and so forth ad infinitum.

This article was first posted 10/9/2008 and has been re-edited Manchester Confidential.

The interiorThe interior in a panoramic view

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield or connect via Google+

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Ali McGowanNovember 18th 2010.

I love the Bridgewater Hall - and even more so that it's actually a design and build contract (I think?) that delivered! Even 14 years on it looks crisp and clean; the inside is very well presented as well. The exposed architecture lets your mind wonder (in a good way!) when listening to a concert. The comparison with Bilbao is interesting as the Guggenheim (as of summer 09) was looking decidedly tired. Luckily, it contained some fantastic exhibits, so this fact mattered a bit less.

Ghostly TomAugust 12th 2013.

I love this building. It's great (in the true sense of the word) for listening to music. And it's a wonderful building to hang out in especially the bar with the view at the top of the building with a lot of the iconic Manchester buildings on view. I love all the strong geometry in this part of the city. A great asset to Manchester that houses a great Manchester institution. Have I gushed enough?

Don AllwrightAugust 30th 2013.

To be honest it's not a great building; but were very lucky to have an acoustically excellent home for the Halle. In my view Hans Scharoun's astonishing concert hall for Berlin Philarmonic is the best I've been in. If you can't make it they do a 'virtual tour' on line! It was finished in 1963; there's scarcely a straight line, all before CAD.

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