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Music Works: an update from the architects

Whilst our work on stage is currently suspended due to Covid-19, we’re pleased that our building works are still progressing well behind the scenes.

More than ever, Music Works will play a transformational role in enabling the Company to emerge from lockdown as we build back better. We recently caught up with Ryan Groves, Director of Leeds-based architects Enjoy Design, to find out more about their work on the project.

What excites you most about Music Works?

The building itself – working on such a high profile Grade II* listed asset and landmark of Leeds. During the 1920s and 30s many Victorian buildings were poorly reconfigured. The arches of the New Briggate ground floor shops had been removed and replaced by a relatively poor art deco design shop front which didn’t relate to the building in the slightest.

When we first began looking at the project, it was about how we could reinstate those stone and brickwork arches that were part of original architect George Corson’s design from the 1870s. So there’s a lot of excitement about these architectural challenges as well as reinstating the original design. This was hugely significant for Leeds Civic Trust and Historic England – they were extremely excited about what the project will bring to Leeds.

Opera North Capital Redevelopment 2018 (artist's impression of restaurant on New Briggate)

What else do you think makes it exciting for Leeds?

The New Briggate Vision is a local authority initiative set up a number of years ago to clean up the New Briggate areas, some of which are in poor condition. It has always been thought that this new building work would act as a catalyst, and since Music Works has started, Leeds City Council’s Connecting Leeds project has begun, and is initially concentrating on the New Briggate, Vicar Lane and Headrow areas. So I think the building will really contribute to this, and make the whole Northern Quarter area far more appealing.

Something else to note is that the new build will be a space for people to enjoy. We’re creating a brand new front of house for the Howard Assembly Room, a restaurant and bar, high quality contemporary spaces and a fantastic four-story atrium, which will be naturally lit in daytime but also with dramatic lighting in the evening: a landmark and hub of activity for theatregoers. Opera North deserves that – to have an instantly recognisable landmark associated with their premises. Leeds has some fantastic buildings but for many an outsider we don’t have a major landmark.

What have been the main challenges?

We work alongside many stakeholders, who all have their own priorities and aspirations, so this can be challenging. Additionally, this project was also unique in itself because we were working in a live environment. We were literally walking with tape and surveying equipment around people who were sat at desks working, or trying to rehearse. Then of course, when it became a construction project, working alongside a live theatre was also a huge challenge and continues to be so.

Another challenge that was actually enjoyable for an architect was the planning approval process. When working with a listed building you have to communicate with a lot of people, and present what you’re doing openly and transparently. Historic England and Leeds Civic Trust were very interested in the project, and they did have comments on it. So it was a really interesting but challenging process to get full listed and building planning consent. But the whole team worked really hard, and we did it!

Something else which we always find interesting when we work with historic buildings, is the ‘unknowns’. When working with a brand new building you know everything about it because you’ve designed it. Here we’re working on a 150-year-old building with limited record drawings, so when we are designing some of the spaces and questioning whether we can take walls down, for example, we need to understand which ones are structural and part of the existing fabric – and there were some surprises. And some of those surprises you don’t find out about until you’re on site. From my side of the fence that’s what makes it really interesting.

Did you find more of these unknowns than you expected?

There were more than we thought there would be, yes. In the great scheme of things, we’ve found everything now. Our contractors, Henry Boot Construction, have done a really great job of understanding the building and its structure, commissioning specialist surveyors to undertake detailed intrusive surveys of the premises. This also includes finding out about health and safety elements such as levels of asbestos. We always knew those things existed, and lo and behold, they presented themselves: it’s just part of the management of the project.

Ultimately this project includes working on a listed building, a refurbishment and part new build – so actually the challenges you would experience over a handful of projects we are experiencing in just this one. It’s quite unique and I don’t think we’ve had that before as a business.

How many people from Enjoy Design have been working on this project?

We regularly hold internal design reviews as a company so this project has had input from everyone at every level. At these reviews someone will present what we are doing and everyone, from a junior in the office to an admin person will make suggestions from the layout of a room to the colour of paint on a wall. So this project will have had the design input of around 19 people over the course of its life.

What are the advantages of being Yorkshire-based?

I love Yorkshire. It’s a region my business and I are incredibly proud of, especially with recent successes like the Olympics, Tour de France and Tour de Yorkshire.

Yorkshire is very diverse and centrally located, with easy access to London, Manchester and Scotland but also with its own independence as a region. So the main advantage for our organisation is that we are able to spread our wings. We’ve got projects in many places, from London to County Durham to Aberdeen, and I imagine 75% of those are within a two-hour drive. We are in the thick of it whilst being on the doorstep of the countryside.

Councillor Jonathan Pryor from Leeds City Council, Dr Keith Howard, and Richard Mantle attending Opera North's 2019/20 season launch at Harewood House © Justin Slee

What part of Music Works are you most looking forward to seeing once it’s finished?

This is really easy! It’ll be seeing people of all ages and from different walks of life enjoying the spaces that Opera North, us at Enjoy Design, Henry Boot Construction and the whole team have worked so hard to deliver.

I shall be there during the opening week, looking at what we’ve all achieved, and I’m really excited about that. I’m looking forward to the young kids using the education facilities, the musicians using their brand new state-of-the-art rehearsal space, and the public enjoying the restaurant and atrium spaces. It will bring so much delight to myself and many others.

It will be also be a great testament to the support of Dr Keith Howard, likewise the work of Richard Mantle and I guess the same for all of us: it will be the legacy of everyone who has worked on it.

To find out more about Music Works please contact Natalie Rawel:


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