The theatres are closed. What now? Commissioned and co-curated by Greyscale, Imaginary Reviews is a series that invites critics and artists of all stripes to write about a fictional performance at their local theatre. The series continues with James Varney’s architectural intervention into a Manchester landmark.
Audio version by Nigel Barrett:
It can’t have only happened to me. When you are lying waiting for sleep and then a dream comes to remind you that you aren’t in bed; you are climbing some stairs, or travelling by train, or floating a few inches off the ground. And then you slip on the stairs, or the train bucks away from the track, or you fall suddenly. I land heavily and am back in my bed, trying to return to sleep, heavier and more tired than before. A dream can have a physical impact on you. It can shove you back up against the physical world.
The NIAMOS occupies the physical world but is a dream, too, in many ways. In Hulme, in Manchester, it is a building which was originally the Hulme Hippodrome, opened in 1902. The NIAMOS website, before it mysteriously disappeared, had a breakdown of the building’s history. It’s been empty enough recently enough that there are leaks and cracks but it still stands. The first time I went to the NIAMOS I got lost and accidentally snuck in through the side entrance, bypassing the box office. Inside, it is layered like a beehive, with thin slices of passage stacked on top of each other around the large central theatre space.
Officially, practically and as a ‘performance’, A Building Dreams takes place over three days, but it emphasises that this is only the latest chapter in the story of the building’s continuous shifting and transformation. NIAMOS is a building over a century old; every so often it must shed its skin.
A Building Dreams is a project as old as the building itself. It’s easy to think about theatre as a live thing, contained within performance dates; it is conjured up and it dies. The reality is that before (and after) the performance is the production: things must be put in place, the show must be grown and built up to. At some point between the 1997 closure of the theatre and today, a great iron sheet was erected across the stage’s proscenium arch, turning the stage and backstage into a separate room from the theatre. This room is where the audience find themselves upon entry. On the walls is the record of how NIAMOS got to this point. At every point in the evening we are free to stay where we are, or move ahead. How we move is in our hands. We have time and space to read about the past of the building, plans and hopes for its future. We can read, too, records of the meetings and workshops that fed into this performance.
Over the doorway of this first room are the words, ‘Why are you here?’ No one is here for the same reason. We all have our own stories which have led us to this point. Some of us are in the archival work that covers the walls. Many of us will become part of the production photos, and join the archive today. Though we may not be in this room together, we are in the same place. And if we were not in it, the place would not exist. What are communities, if not makers of place?
I could write about A Building Dreams in the abstract for days; many of the thoughts it contains are abstract. The piece asks its audience to consider: where they are; who they are; who they share the world with; how they wish to share it. Still, even the dreams in our heads are the result of physical processes.
A Building Dreams also contains concrete, literal action. Tonight, the impassable steel membrane separating this room from the theatre space is torn down as we watch. It takes hours – and it has taken days to make the process safe to watch. The rest of the building is open and there is activity across it. I spend most of my time drinking tea and talking to other locals about the things which brought us here. Those stories are ours. At the end of the evening, the room we began in is no longer a room; finally, we are on the stage. Further architectural interventions will change this building over the remaining two nights.
A Building Dreams shows that architecture is directionless, blunt. Without us to live inside, bricks and beams travel forward in time in a dead way. They rot and crumble unless looked after. Our presence keeps them alive. Sure, there is life inside a whale skeleton. but who would wish to be a rotting whale? Today, NIAMOS rots in reverse. The building is a golem reanimated; its inhabitants are a scroll scribbled over with intent. The purpose of A Building Dreams is to reveal to us that we are written on the same parchment.
I did not expect this. I did not expect any of this. I walk home through young streets. Hulme is a place which has been torn down and rebuilt at least twice in living memory. First, there were terraces here, which were torn down to make way for the huge concrete crescents, which were torn down to make way for houses like the one I live in. I am not used to my walk home from the theatre being short. I’m used to theatre buried deep in the centre of Manchester, not close to me, not the place I live in itself.
I walk home but I do not leave A Building Dreams. Or leaving does not mean the same thing now. A dream can pin you up against reality. My steps are reassuringly solid but the things I remember from tonight are too large. When I reach my front door I am scared to put my key in the lock. Coming to the end of the evening, I worry I am already asleep. I fear that I have dreamed this and I may any second wake up and find the dream dissolved, the work yet to be done.