Clear purpose, identity and direction needed if Aviva Studios is to succeed says Jonathan Schofield

To many carpers and commentators Aviva Studios is a gift that keeps on taking.

It is at least three years late on delivery (official opening is in October) and the initial £110m budget has mushroomed to more than double. It was supposed to be fully open at the latest for Manchester International Festival (MIF) on 29 June but it was late once more.

Aviva keeps on being late on being late and being overbudget on being overbudget. 

Aviva Studios must make it clear what it is actually for

Up, up and away with my costly balloon

The original costing to gain The Factory, then Factory International, then Aviva Studios, was £110m which earlier this year had leapt to £210m. On 18 July we learnt more money was needed to lift the overall bill to just shy of £220m. And that’s not the end of it. In September it appears there will be another cost rise of £9.8m. To complete the public realm especially facing the River Irwell will be a further previously unanticipated £1.1m.


And Ouch.

The Manchester City Council contribution will ultimately top £80m. The council points out this was ‘money which can only be used for one-off construction and infrastructure projects and not for council services’. Still to use up to £80m on one project when so many other existing council owned buildings in suburban areas closer to some of the city's less prosperous districts are desperate for funds seems a shame. Heaton Hall and Platt Hall are a case in point as we discussed in this article.

The reasons given for the over spend on Aviva Studios are high material and labour costs plus the problems of construction during Covid-19 which meant 24 hour labour to catch-up and a “volatile economic climate and the complexity and uniqueness of the building”. Heaton Hall and Platt Hall are also unique buildings.

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Aviva Studios during Manchester International Festival Image: Confidentials

Beauty is in the eye of operator

At the launch of MIF2023 John McGrath, the festival's creative director, called Aviva Studios “beautiful”, the Council Leader Bev Craig called it “beautiful.”

It's anything but beautiful, although Andy Mallin's drone shot featured in this article imbues it with a certain distinctiveness. The building is impressive yes, the scale of the main events space is thrilling, as evidenced by Kusama's MIF2023 You, Me and the Balloons exhibition, but beautiful it is not.

The building has been criticised particularly on its aesthetics and location. Rowan Moore’s review of the building in The Guardian was scathing, concluding it might have been better if it hadn’t been built. Or if it had to be built it might have been prudent to the make it look a little more like the giddy CGIs when the building design was given over to starchitects OMA of the Netherlands in 2015. Moore writes: ‘The gossamer chrysalis of the hall (in 2015) has calcified into angular metal sheets, gappy and misaligned.’

Perhaps, worse was the comment from one Festival insider to of how disappointing it was when a punter, not a professional architectural writer, asked with regard to the main ‘flexible’ exhibition space: “What did it used to be?” Nobody wants to spend all that money and have people assume you’re just a redundant industrial facility. 

The name change from Factory International to Aviva Studios, a week before the building hosted its first events for MIF2023, seemed rushed, panicky. It also proved unpopular and was again criticised by The Guardian. What happened to the special relationship between the ‘paper and the Festival? They used to be so closex Even Tracey Thorn had a go in the News Statesman’s summer special.

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This was the proposal from OMA Image: archive

The fight back - it'll be great

The city council and Factory International has fought back hard against any such concerns and negativity.

In July, before announcing the hike in costs (rather late in the press release at around paragraph 18), the city council quoted various media.

“Increasingly feels like Manchester’s answer to the Southbank,” Manchester Evening News.

“It’s ready to compete with any arts space in the UK,” Time Out.

“Britain’s most exciting new music venue,” The Times.

The press release then revealed, the ‘Economic benefits of Aviva Studios'.

'There’ll be ‘up to £1.1bn added to Manchester’s economy over 10 years through the operation of the venue through the jobs it creates and supports – estimated at more than 1,500 – and visitor spending. It is expected to attract up to 850,000 visitors a year – increasing to a million in MIF years.  

‘Social value is already being delivered through the construction of the building, with 86% of spending so far with Greater Manchester businesses and 56% of labour being sourced from the city region with a number of new jobs and apprenticeships being created.’

All good and here’s hoping those forecasts become reality. 

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Aviva Studios from over Trinity Way, Salford, looking towards Deansgate Square. Andy Mallins' spectacular drone image, details after the article. Image: Andy Mallins

Ordsall Chord a bum note

Manchester in terms of development has been way ahead of other UK cities outside London since 2000. Indeed, the city has become a paradigm for cities across Europe with study visits every year from, particularly, northern European cities attempting to understand how all the change has been achieved. 

Yet the city has hosted a couple of spectacular fails in huge projects in the last couple of decades. 

Metres away from Aviva Studios is a failure that was hardly the council's fault but remains a sobering example of how major projects go wrong. 

The Ordsall Chord viaduct is an elegant white elephant. This impressive piece of engineering from 2017, designed by BDP, was supposed to have 15 train movements an hour. It was supposed to link Piccadilly Station and Victoria Station so intimately that economic benefits would blossom across the north. 30,000 new jobs and £4.6bn of wider economic advantage were nailed onto the proposals as guaranteed. Yes, guaranteed. 

Then after more than £100m was spent on Ordsall Chord the promised additional capacity increasing two lines to four between Piccadilly Station to Deansgate Station failed to materialise thanks to some accounting idiocy of Network Rail and the Government. 

Presently there's one train in each direction each hour on that £100m viaduct. The Ordsall Chord also resulted in terrible damage to a site of global significance as it cut the oldest passenger railway line in the world, but hey, the quid pro quo was 30,000 jobs. Has even one extra job flowed from the Ordsall Chord? 

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The Ordsall Chord from Aviva Studios Image: Confidentials

The shadow of Urbis

A greater warning for Aviva Studios comes from Urbis which opened in 2002.

Urbis was funded by the Millenium Commission to the tune of £30m with £1m from Manchester City Council for running costs. It was  built to mark the city’s fight back after the 1996 IRA bomb attack and be a ‘museum of cities’. Unfortunately, nobody knew what a ‘museum of cities’ was and with a £5 entrance fee most people didn’t want to find out. If they did pay the £5 they found the permanent exhibition was rubbish and the building more of a sculpture to be enjoyed from the outside rather than anything which functioned internally. Scarcely anybody made a repeat visit.

Urbis became a drain on council finances even when as a desperate measure it went free to boost numbers which had fallen to 200 a day. Some suggested closing it down as a waste of money. Instead it became a gallery for contemporary British culture and was a critical success with superb exhibitions.

But it was still a risk and losing money so the city wooed the National Football Museum (NFM) which upped sticks from Preston North End’s Deepdale stadium and came to Manchester in 2012. This not only had a degree of logic, the Football League was founded in 1888 in the city, but necessary. The Urbis building needed a clear function that was easy for everyone to understand if it was ever to become anything but an intense  black hole in the city’s finances. Nothing could be easier to understand than a football museum.

Yet, despite switching from a free museum to a pay-to-visit museum (albeit still free for City of Manchester residents) and last year attracting 190,654 guests NFM still needs a city subsidy. This subsidy was approved in 2021 and is on a sliding scale: £1.4million in 2022/23, £1.35million in 2023/24 and £1.25million in 2024/25.

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A great museum in a building which has never really worked Image: Confidentials

Urbis carries a another warning. 

The eye-catching shape of what was in effect an experimental building designed by Manchester architects Simpson Haugh has proved incapable of being a good host for any of its tenants, even the present one. A funicular sloping lift failed in the early years, the top-level restaurant space has reduced several commercial operators literally to tears and is now empty and the exhibition spaces remain cramped. The National Football Museum is an excellent museum but it's had to make do with a building that has never been fit for purpose. 

Aviva Studios is a similarly experimental building designed by Ellen van Loon of Rotterdam-based OMA. The operators Factory International must make sure its flexible spaces are exactly that: flexible. Urbis is an example of a totally inflexible building.

One thing Urbis has always had going for it is a very visible location, adjacent to the heart of Manchester's retail centre. Aviva's potential success is not aided by the fact most regular city centre visitors are unfamiliar with the St John's area.

The site of Aviva Studios in the south-west corner of the city centre will boost the general development there which is great for the property company that owns the place, Allied London, but possibly for nobody else. There's  inadequate wayfinding to the building and poor links to public transport. Doctrinaire policy on active travel means even the multi-storey car parks are a walk away. It's odd in 2023 in projects across the country which trumpet diversity how often they discriminate against the disabled and elderly guests who need to drive. 

People also like to have a range of food and drink close to where they see shows. Until some of the shed-like new structures hemming-in Aviva Studios gain food and drink venues then that will be an issue as Aviva, unlike, say, HOME arts centre, doesn't have a restaurant. 

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You, Me and the Balloons was a spectacular showcase for the scale of Aviva Studios Image: Confidentials

Running costs boost

The running costs for Aviva Studios will dwarf those for the National Football Museum although the Government and the Arts Council are helping big time.

As the Arts Council told 'In November 2022 we announced that Factory International had successfully applied to our National Portfolio programme for 2023-26 and over that period we will invest £9,908,150 per year in the organisation. This figure (which incorporates the Government revenue funding of £9 million per year for Aviva Studios) supports the biennial Manchester International Festival, operation of Factory International and work across Greater Manchester, including the Factory Academy which provides access to skills, training and employment programmes.'

The council’s annual contribution will be £1.5m. Meanwhile, remember, it is estimated that Aviva Studios 'could generate up to £1.1bn for Manchester’s economy over 10 years and attract up to 850,000 visitors a year.'

The council also believe ‘over the life of the lease the MCC share of naming rights and other building sponsorships income will be over £80m that will be used to repay borrowing incurred to build the asset.’

This is huge support and welcome because Aviva will need it. Others point out it's a shame Oldham Coliseum couldn't attract this type of Arts Council largesse when it needed a shade under £1.84m to survive for three years. 

It seems some projects have to succeed more than others. 

Oldham Coliseum Theatre
Oldham Coliseum expendable whereas Aviva Studios isn't Image: Confidentials

The purpose of Aviva must be clear

What is obvious from the example of Urbis is an absolutely clear-headed idea of what Aviva Studios is attempting to be must be front and centre of all planning at Factory International. It must create an identity for itself and quickly. At the same time the programming must be brave and also popular for the building to get close to breaking even in the future, certainly when the cushion of subsidies start to disappear. 

Brave and popular seems to be the case with this autumn’s Danny Boyle-directed Free your Mind, 'a Matrix films-themed dance, music and visual effects experience'. Let's trust that show will be a success and let's trust the momentum will be maintained. Aviva Studios needs to build excitement way beyond the Greater Manchester boundaries, across the north, nationally and even internationally. That will not be easy.

It doesn't help that so many people close to home don't have any idea what the Aviva Studios is supposed to be for, despite the website trumpeting it as the 'landmark new cultural space for Manchester and the world...built with flexibility in mind'. Only the programming quality will allow it to imprint itself in people's brains. 

What the Bridgewater Hall, the refurbishment of Central Library and the present refurbishment of the Town Hall was all about was (and remains) obvious. What a ‘flexible cultural space’ is all about is not. 

Obviously, the council is talking up Aviva Studios. No wonder. They have made one hell of a commitment.

“What is being created here in Manchester is a venue which is bold, visionary and spectacular,” says Councillor Rahman, Deputy Council Leader.  

“It’s a nationally and internationally important centre," he continues, "for art and creativity at the heart of our city which will also create new opportunities for our people, boost our creative and visitor economy and strengthen Manchester’s global reputation.”  

We're going to have to take that on trust aren't we Councillor?  

Another of the supporting quotes from the city council in their July announcement came from Wallpaper Magazine and read, “Like nothing the art world has ever seen before”.

That is a deeply ambiguous statement. It could mean different things. It doesn't necessarily mean success. Let’s hope there is less ambiguity over the future of Aviva Studios. Let’s hope it’s grandiose dreams are fulfilled.

They've built will they come? Jury’s out. 

You can view (and purchase) Andy's beautiful, dramatic and impressive photographs via his website

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