“Architecture is an expression of values,” says Norman Foster, one of Britain’s foremost practitioners of building design, whose work is visible in major cities across the world.

Sadly, his craft has yet to be applied to Manchester’s urban landscape, although it’s fair to say that the principle of the above quote is in evidence across four landmark arts venues in a city renowned for pioneering everything from industry and politics to music and popular culture.

They are a reminder of how Manchester’s most important arts venues make up a pantheon of public buildings as exciting and thought-provoking as any city in the world. Is it just an accident or are the values of a city renowned for its creativity and liberal journalism – from the Manchester Guardian onwards – intrinsically responsible for their architectural curtain raisers? The Royal Exchange Theatre, Contact Theatre, the newly refurbished Whitworth and the new home for Cornerhouse, aptly named Home.

What each of these projects displays is a profound sense of confidence in delivering drama and spectacle alongside the simple act of creating workable spaces that more than just serve their purpose. At a time when government funding for the arts is being cut back, each of these buildings provides an urgent reminder that architectural risk and vision must never be compromised to short-termism or fiscal constraint. As each of these buildings evidently shows, anything is possible.

First to walk the boards is the Royal Exchange Theatre, a spaceship-like ‘building within a building’ structure housed within the considerably larger and grander Royal Exchange. Apart from the obvious architectural device of striking an older architectural language against a newer lexicon of design, the theatre also plays havoc with one’s sense of space, offering an intimate ‘theatre in the round’ on the one hand while exposing the sheer scale of the former Corn Exchange on the other, itself previously a theatre for commerce. The new within the old provides a pertinent metaphor for the values inherent in many of the theatre’s productions, both for daring new dramas and reinterpreting classics from the past. Interestingly, its unique design is partly borne from the fact that the 150-ton theatre structure doesn’t fully rest on the floor of the Exchange, which is unable to hold its entire weight. Instead, weight is dispersed to its four corners. The theatre was opened in 1976 and designed by Richard Negri – a theatre designer first and foremost, not an architect.

Talking in the same unconventional language of progressive building design is Contact Theatre, a truly eccentric architectural masterpiece whose unforgettable form is determined by deploying theatrical statements to deliver some of the more mundane aspects of the building’s functions. Set within the sprawling University of Manchester campus and designed by Alan Short & Associates – who won the RIBA Stirling Building of the Year award in 1999 for this outstanding piece – the building gives the unsung facility of ventilation a star billing with H-shaped Tudor towers that take centre stage, at least on the external elevations. The front entrance looks like a melting portcullis while other allusions to the language of fortified structures can be seen in the sweeping circular tower to the right. At night, the building looks like an exploded diagram of a castle.

Just 200 yards down the road lies Whitworth Art Gallery, whose recent reincarnation and hugely successful re-launch has been documented in NT#17 and NT#18 and gained coverage from a litany of arts and architectural pundits, who have praised its refreshing Nordic-feel gallery extension, restaurant and gardens. It’s worth remembering that this institutional and visually unwelcoming gallery façade, conceived in a somewhat worthy Edwardian design language of dense, academic orange and red brick and a paucity of natural light, flirted with a touch of modernism in the 1960s with a surprisingly successful Scandinavian remodelling of parts of its interior by architect John Bickerdike.

Even so, it was still dark and gloomy. The new £15m redevelopment has not only led to a powerfully simple glass-led extension into Whitworth Park, in which the gallery has sat for over a century, but has recreated the combination of light and the outdoors with the inside spaces. The gallery is now flooded with natural light and a natural landscape of trees in what had hitherto felt more like Blake’s dark satanic mills. In a city not renowned for its sunshine, the design by London-architects MUMA – trained in another rain-drenched city, Glasgow – is accessible from both sides of its new floor-to-ceiling glass edifice. It seems to be inviting the outdoors in, along with everyone who is walking by or playing in the park.

If accessibility and light are creative themes behind the Whitworth, these are developed further and a real sense of home underpins the latest arts venue presented to a city which in 2015 seems to be receiving an unfair share of new spaces. Home, the new shared home for the art house cinema and gallery complex Cornerhouse – housed in a former furniture store off Oxford Road for the best part of 30 years – and the Library Theatre, which vacated Central Library before another recent city centre refurbishment, is a shiny new complex which plays a pivotal role in the exciting First Street development on the south side of Whitworth Street.

Designed by Netherlands-based architects Mecanoo, who committed to the project by setting up an office in Manchester, this understated, softly triangular building – a loose reference to Cornerhouse, perhaps – looks a bit corporate plate glass on first glance. But the genius of its design reveals itself when you experience the interplay between indoors and outdoors and the way it uses daylight to flood its inner space. The effect is to create a fresh, open space which, unlike its rather cramped predecessor, feels luxuriously voluminous. Home comes preloaded with five cinemas, a theatre, flexible theatre space, art gallery, bookshop and both indoor and outdoor spaces. It packs all of this in without sacrificing that necessary sense of space. It makes you realise what an excellent job both Cornerhouse and the Library Theatre achieved in fairly cramped and dark conditions.

In the words of its architect, Ernst ter Horst, who has made Manchester his home for the last 15 years, “We were inspired by ideas of filling the building with life and the playful interaction with daylight. The building will need to have a strong presence to the new square, distinct from its taller commercial cousins. Yet it needs to be restrained, welcoming, fun, intriguing – a second home, a cultural home.”

Home achieves an incredible balance between restraint and playfulness, without resorting to outlandish architectural gimmicks. It exudes quality and, like the mark of exceptional designs, has a discreetly tailored elegance to its use of materials. It feels understated in its modernity, confidently cool and assuredly intelligent.

Background photo by YGR Erskine.

Tom Warman