The enormous Edwardian Exchange in the centre of Manchester was a trading centre for the agents and salesman of thousands of Lancashire businesses, especially mill owners, cotton importers, and others involved in the textile business. When it was completed in 1921, the fourth building of its type on the site, the place buzzed with activity, but by the 1960s, a combination of industrial depression, mergers, and new means of communication meant that the trade there had declined. In 1968 the vast hall, with its three glass domes and massive neoclassical columns, had to close.
When the hall was put to use in 1973 as a temporary theatre, its success set people thinking. How could a permanent theatre be built to make best use of the cavernous space? The solution, designed by Levitt, Bernstein Associates, seemed to have been made for the phrase ‘the shock of the new’: a theatre pod with a visible framework of tubular steel. With the Apollo moon landings fresh in everyone’s memory, this building-within-a-building soon became nicknamed ‘the Lunar Module’. It wasn’t hard to see that something extraordinary had landed.
Inside the little theatre in the round, every audience member is close to the stage. It’s intimate theatre at its best. Outside, the alien structure is small enough not to overwhelm the hall of the Exchange. One can still appreciate the grand architecture – the columns with their gilded capitals, the brilliant glazed domes. When Manchester was bombed in 1996, the architects came back to do refurbishment work, taking the opportunity to build in new services. Add to that a dramatic new lighting and decorative scheme in the hall and the combination is even better. Old and new contrast, but work together, an object lesson in allowing modern design and traditional architecture to coexist in symbiosis.