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Will Urbis ever be any good?

Susie Stubbs talks to Urbis boss Vaughan Allen on plans to make Urbis exciting, accessible and central to the city

Published on October 2nd 2007.

Will Urbis ever be any good?

Slated for being ‘an expensive, if elegant, white elephant’ when it opened in 2002, Urbis spent several years floundering in the cultural wilderness. While the building itself was an architectural delight, its purpose was confused. No one seemed to know what, exactly, it was for. It had few visitors, a rogue lift and windows you couldn’t look out of. It was widely reported to be in financial strife. And, although occasional ‘special’ exhibitions pulled in the crowds, these were too few and far between to sustain the whole shebang.

The skater kids who hang round Cathedral Gardens in gloomy Gothic clumps are, in Allen’s book, “an incredible bunch of articulate, intelligent young people who are obsessed by fashion, music and art.

Two years ago, a new Chief Executive was drafted in to rescue Urbis. A journalist by trade – and, before Urbis, the man behind the Royal Armouries in Leeds – Vaughan Allen has since been “consolidating what Urbis should be”. Which sounds impressive until you consider recent developments. Le Mont, the top floor restaurant, closed. Most of the gallery space has been shut for months, while plans for a beach in Cathedral Gardens were scuppered by rain.

“I’ll be the first to admit that Urbis has had its problems,” says Allen. “You can’t build a gallery and expect people to come, and you have to have more of a reason for it than hoping it will attract investment. Ironically, Urbis was very successful in attracting investment elsewhere: a lot of development in the Northern Quarter wouldn’t have happened without it. But that doesn’t give the people of Manchester a reason for coming here.”

Allen and his team have been toiling behind the scenes to solve Urbis’ problems, including the financial ones. “We’re not in trouble,” states Allen. “We’ve increased commercial income by 175%. We’re within budget in terms of what the Council gives us.” (That’s £2 million a year, most of which gets swallowed up on keeping the building open.)

Money is uppermost in Allen’s mind at the moment because Urbis is about to unveil some radical – and costly - changes. Two floors of permanent exhibition space has been swept clean, freeing up the galleries for an anticipated eight new shows a year. Just one permanent exhibition remains. Even this – the Manchester Gallery - has had an overhaul. New film and photography installations sit next to interactive exhibits to which ordinary punters can add their twopenn’orth.

Next year’s shows include one from local-fashionista-made-good, Matthew Williamson, and a blockbuster contemporary art show that Allen is – frustratingly - keeping under wraps “We’re co-curating a visual art show and bringing it to Urbis from overseas for autumn 2008,” is all he’ll say. “I want first-run stuff at Urbis, not touring exhibitions from London.”

Before then, Urbis lays on an advertising exhibition from industry gurus D&AD, stages four days of catwalk shows for Manchester Fashion Weekend, opens a graduate art and design exhibition and hosts a Christmas market from the intriguingly named Manchester Craft Mafia. It’s already working on the second Best of Manchester showcase and late night events are regularly pulling in a younger, hipper crowd. The Modern – the relaxed replacement to Le Mont – opens in December. It’ll serve up seasonal, no-nonsense grub and a cracking list of classic cocktails. Oh, and the lift has finally been fixed, meaning visitors can, rather daringly, choose which floor they go to and when.

Visitor figures now top 250,000 - a marked improvement from the days when it struggled to attract half that number. And, with his house in order, Allen now wants to ruffle a few feathers. “I want our role to be about doing more off-the-wall stuff than traditional galleries. I want to be on the front page of the MEN.” Long gone are the days when Urbis barred the under 16s from the building. The skater kids who hang round Cathedral Gardens in gloomy Gothic clumps are, in Allen’s book, “an incredible bunch of articulate, intelligent young people who are obsessed by fashion, music and art.” Rumour has it that he’s working on plans for a skate area close to Urbis. “I’d love it if we could make Cathedral Gardens work for the skaters and for everyone else, and got it so right that people came here to see the best skaters in the world. If Manchester wants to be the original modern city, a city that embraces youth culture, then we have to find a way of engaging with the biggest youth culture of them all – skateboarding.”

Unapologetic and ambitious he may be, but can Allen help Urbis achieve the acclaim it deserves? As he says himself, “we’ve been developing hard over the past 18 months but now’s the time to deliver. The next year is going to be crucial for us.”

Brave words. The city will be watching.

Cathedral Gardens,
0161 605 8200
Open: daily 10am-6pm

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30 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Well well wellOctober 2nd 2007.

Its a controversial topic isn't it? From the viewpoint of a casual visitor the internal design is confusing. The entrance is inconspicuous and the interior unwelcoming. I've read the defence of Simpson above, but having worked with and talked to members of the Architectural community, the above criticism is not unique in identifying Simpson's disregard 9evern disdain) for the end user over his artictic vision. I understand Kelly's point. There's nothing worse than being at the behest of local government, but to me the long and the short of it is an impressive but deeply impractical building that has suffered from being a political football and also from an inability to deliver exhibitions that really grab the public. surely Urbis should be trying to bring at least one or two iconic exhibitions from London or abroad each year (and b4 anyone gets on their high horse about "London" the fact is the sheer size of the capital means there are literally hudreds of amazing exhibitions each year that would translate well up here). Finally to the writer of the piece and other posters, very rarely will you see a Goth on a skateboard and most would be distraught to be described as such (as would the skaters vice versa!) I'm 36 and I know that. if you're going to reference yoof culture, at least get it right!

Former Manchester residentOctober 2nd 2007.

It's so cute what's going on up there in the regions isn’t it...!Former Manchester resident, now living in the real world, (London).

This is meOctober 2nd 2007.

Ha ha - it's 'hoisted by your own petard', but you knew that...

not good, not good at allOctober 2nd 2007.

As a disgruntled ex memeber of staff who witnessed a two tier system of burocracy, I have to say it could've been utilised a whole lot better and more for the people than the creative directors/ In House Curators CV's. Firstly the main offices, where everyone with a salaried job hid in there and choose not to interact with customers or other memebers of staff because they were all so pompous and self involved. The creative department, who thought they were innovators but were obviously motivated by money and not creative means.The staff on the shop/museum floors - not to mention the cleaners were all treated very badly by management from what I witnessed.The visitors were thought of as Proles to the people in the offices and not allowing teenagers to come in just because they looked a certain way, well that's just plain wrong.

AnonymousOctober 2nd 2007.

I think Toons :The Animation Art Company in salford quays contacted Urbis about putting on an exhibiton wether on the Simpsons or the artwork of Disney or Warner Bros, but I dont think they every replied to the letters or messages left for them.

Sell itOctober 2nd 2007.

We have Selfridges & Harvey Nick's so why not see if Mohamed Al Fayed is intrested in turning it into a mini Harrods of the North. It will be a win win situation with no drain on public funds, a cash return on the sale, more jobs and a big name store pulling more people into the area than Urbis could ever do.

UrbisOctober 2nd 2007.

Well the fact is we have changed our programming to accommodate more Manchester focused exhibitions as that was what customers told us they wanted - from day one - and with visitors up by 70% it certainly rings true. And it looks like we are still listening to them. Keith – we are running some indoor skate workshops on 14 and 21 of October and Sell it – get yourself down to Fashion Weekend Manchester if you want to see a mini Harrods in action.

i think its great tooOctober 2nd 2007.

i agree - Urbis makes the city look fab and is a fantastic exhibition space. I love bringing visiting friends and family here - its a celebration of our city! A wonder round urbis always cheers me up and i love the gift shop for quirky pressies. Can't wait for the restaurant to re-open... keep up the good work guys!

emptyshellloverOctober 2nd 2007.

My first impression of Urbis was.. wow! what a great building and then when I tried to go and see the Saville exhibition, they refused entry as they said it would take me longer than 45 minutes to get around and therefore I was too late. That was back when they charged, so effectively they turned down my £5 and my mates'. Since then I have tried to get enthusiastic about it several times, but the Alsop exhibition was terrible, Mick Rock was ok and the Hacienda was a worthy subject but a bit flat. I'm glad Le Mont has shut as having an exclusive restaurant at the top of the building was a naff move. The point of having an interesting public building is surely to explore it and see the views. I would really like the place to work and hope that they get it right. Trouble is, every one is obsessed with trying to be original and modern and missing the point.

steveOctober 2nd 2007.

We're all envious of Barcelona, Rome, NY etc etc. However, when we do get a building that is of a unique status, all we do is slate it! If we're not careful, Manchester council might hear some of the moans, and continue to allow the construction of an uninspiring city! Its a unique building which stimulates conversation and thought - shouldn't we encourage some more of this?!!!???

KellyOctober 2nd 2007.

Hmm, techy techy Mrs Trellis...I seem to have hit a nerve. Of course, anyone who's trying to insult someone really ought to be able to articulate their argument and avoid making glaring grammatical and puncuation errors. Perhaps if Urbis opens a remedial writing workshop you'll attend?

i think its greatOctober 2nd 2007.

well i think you are all a bunch of miserable moaners. I really like Urbis, I think all the Manchestser-based stuff they do is great, like the Peter Saville and the Hacienda exhibition. I spent many an evening in the Hacienda and thought the exhibition really did it justice and brought back some happy memories for me. And I can't wait to see the design and advertising exhibition either.

KeithOctober 2nd 2007.

'The skater kids who hang round Cathedral Gardens in gloomy Gothic clumps are, in Allen’s book, “an incredible bunch of articulate, intelligent young people who are obsessed by fashion, music and art.' All this they may be but they are also knocking lumps out of the new 'street furniture', pavement flags and walls around the cathederal which in my book is not acceptable however intelligent or articulate a person is. Perhpas Urbis should be converted in to an indoor skate park?

markOctober 2nd 2007.

i wish i could justify 2 million quid for just 250,000 visitors! im sure some of manchester other atractions could do a lot more with that level of council support! the pump house for example!

daveOctober 2nd 2007.

simon, cheap shot at ian simpson, i suppose he's an obvious target, but as the building design was via a competition, which simpson architects won. Can you blame them for responding to a vague brief? the use of the building hadn't been finalised until construction was underway & sounds like it's still being decided...Blame the people who commisioned the building, not the people who tried to make it work... (i don't work for simpsons, but do despair at architects being blamed for the crap they're asked to build, when its the people with with the money who the animosity should be reserved for.)

Mrs. TrellisOctober 2nd 2007.

Kelly - i think you'll find that's southerners, mancs and sisters of employees who live vicariously through their brothers some what tenuous talent and would turn up to the opening of an gate.

CharlesOctober 2nd 2007.

Aesthetics wise Urbis symbolises Manchesters desire to boldly step to the 21st century. It is in the heart of the city, but after recently seeing the Hacienda exhibition, The building is nothing but a vacuous shell that lacks purpose.

UrbisOctober 2nd 2007.

Simon, we would love it if you got in touch with our touring department. It's a free opportunity to see all of Urbis lead by knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides as well as an introduction to the surrounding area. Do get in touch via our website.

MattOctober 2nd 2007.

It's easy to get on the front page of the MEN, just wave a fake gun around under a CCTV camera.

Howard SharrockOctober 2nd 2007.

Urbis may be a delight but probably in sculptural terms rather than arcitectural. To be a great building it needs to fulfil some functional purpose. I've never seen any evidence that Urbis achieves this.

SimonOctober 2nd 2007.

The problem with Urbis is all down to Ian Simpson (the architect) who was so busy trying for "iconic" that he didn't bother considering whether the building was welcoming to the casual visitor. Which, considering the vagueness of the museum's remit, it damn well needs top be. Until recently you had to get a ticket and start at the top and commit to the whole damn shebang or.. not bother. Guess what most of us did? Even now you can't get past the mezzanine without using the elevator. Secondly, you can't see what the hell you are letting yourself in for because the windows are mostly all opaque. It's not even obvious where the entrance is from a brief glance! Put it this way - I've been to many of the temporary shows (Street Art, Detroit, British Art Show) but never been near the rest of the building because it just feels so off-putting.

KellyOctober 2nd 2007.

As the sister of a former Urbis employee (largely responsible for organising and curating the exhibitions - yes, the Creative Director), I was privy to some 'inside' information about what went on within the organisation. Apparently, for quite some time Urbis was under immense pressure by the Council to put on more 'Manchester' themed exhibitions and it has undoubtedly succumbed to the pressure in recent months; the Council even suggested just putting up a big show on United. Why? Because let's face it, folks - Manchester only cares about Manchester and Manchester's history. That's why the Saville and Hacienda exhibitions have done well, why Alsop did not (being HUGELY resented for his designs on 'New Islington'). Shows such as Detroit and the China show attempted to link Manchester with other industrial cities to show that, hey guys, we're all one world, dude...oh, no, Manchester is too special for that. I'm in agreement that the north needs an ICA, but who will come to it? Having attended nearly all opening nights of previous Urbis exhibitions, I encountered only two kinds of people; southerners and Mancs involved in the exhibition. A fault of the marketing department to only invite said persons? Or is it just that regular Mancunians couldn't give a toss about anything that doesn't center on Madchester, pies or rain? no good, no good at all -- my brother tried damn hard to put on some good shows, but what's the point when there's no audience? Having lost its posh restaurant, given up part of its space to Channel M, giving some space to City and putting up exhibitions that rehash Manchester's (powerful) legacy, it seems that Urbis is finally on its knees bowing to the Council's demands. Well done, Manchester.

AnonymousOctober 2nd 2007.

It's edging ever closer to it, but essentially we need an ICA for the North: galleries, cinema, venue, bar in one buidlingThe Urbis building can't do it. Sell it off and do this properly.

LucyOctober 2nd 2007.

Urbis is different place to when it opened, it's amazing and has a genuinely exciting programme of activities going on - anyone who hates it clearly isn't using it! Manchester should be proud and grateful to have such an iconic centre on it's doorstep. If you still doubt it why not try actually getting involved!

mrs.trellisOctober 2nd 2007.

Punctuation....foisted on your own petard. i'll sign you up for lessons too then??

AnonymousOctober 2nd 2007.

They need to get the skaters out, make the entrance more obvious and actually let people know what going on. I just thought it was a tv studio for channel M nowadays. Im pretty clued up, imagine the ones that arent. lol.

VaughanOctober 2nd 2007.

Love the idea of being President of the lunatics...how much does it pay?

Phil GriffinOctober 2nd 2007.

Urbis should be the best Visitor Information building in the country. It should be the first port of call for all visitors to Manchester. It should be the place to sign up for numerous walking, bus and boat tours of the city, Ship Canal and Salford Quays. It should be the booking hall for all theatres and performance venues in the city. It should be a craft and produce shop, music and video download station and bookstore. It should be a transmitter and receiver of images from all parts of the city and the world.Urbis should tell the story of Manchester authoritatively and authentically. Which other building does this?Urbis sits between Europe's fist free library (Chetham's) and the childhood home (on Toad now Todd Lane) of Ann Lee, guiding spirit of the Shakers. Urbis has great stories to tell that other buildings and institutions in the city, perhaps for reasons of space, access and funding, cannot. Urbis is not the ICA of the North. It is not a building that suits much conventional art. It does not have galleries, walls or controllable light. Urbis, like it or not, is a stricking building in a central location. It was set up to tell the story of cities but was sidetracked by infotainment tendencies. Urbis is a storytelling building.Visitor numbers in Manchester are rising, but they have little focus. With the right modifications Urbis can be the communication centre of the city. The one element of the original installations that was effective was the series of short films describing Hulme, Little Italy and Ancoats and other areas of the city, through stories and anecdote.Now that the somewhat schizophrenic restaurant has finally packed up the crystal and pretentions, perhaps the entire building can get down to welcoming people, local and global, to our great city, telling them about it, and selling them on all the opportunities available here. That takes trained staff, good management and volunteers. As far as I can see, most of that's in place. Certainly the atmosphere is markedly improved over the last couple of years. City Centre Management, Marketing Manchester, all of the HE institutions, RIBA and English Heritage should combine in this building. It should be inviting, buzzy and helpful. And it should tell you everything you need to know about our great city. Why be diffident?

JimOctober 2nd 2007.

“an incredible bunch of articulate, intelligent young people who are obsessed by fashion, music and art." Who, the emos? I vote Vaughan Allen President of the Lunatics

Never Quite Got it PersonallyOctober 2nd 2007.

want to be on the front page of the MEN? Such ambition! Wow! It's gone all Oscar Wilde this, Urbis are in the gutter but they are looking at the MEN. Whilst aiming at the stars, they might achieve the MEN. This place is just plain wrong.

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