Phoenix Square

Its something of a curious feeling entering a building that you’ve known intimately for five years in design and finally walking into the real thing.

For five years from 2002 to 2007 as Director of Phoenix I led on the development of what has become Phoenix Square (Leicester), taking the project from initial feasibility through to the point at which the project got the final green light to go into the ground and start building.

It was a long and lengthy process with many cul de sacs, disappointments and complications. So when I left (just after we had successfully got all the funding in place, signed off on design and business plan and with construction starting) I was somewhat jaded and blearey eyed but still couldn’t help leave with something of a tear in my eye!

So its been with both excitement and a certain amount of pride that I’ve returned to Leicester to see the finished building. At a cost of just over £20m the project has realised an impressive mix of 21st Century Media Centre, workspaces and residential units…and whilst I’m obviously biased it is quite some building.

From the moment you enter the foyers you are immediately aware this is something special. Your eye can’t help but be drawn to the projection screens above you – behind which you get glimpses of other patrons. This is a building teeming with life. Enter the screen lounge and you immediately enter another world – Roman Leicester to be precise – the first of many reminders of the innovative partnership with De Montfort University throughout the building. The basics aren’t forgotten either – the food provided by an in house team is excellent and very good value.

Tucked away just off the screen lounge is a dedicated digital space – the DMU Cube – currently showing one of Bret Battey’s audio visual works. I quite happily spent twenty minutes reclining on a bean bag allowing the work to wash right over me. The cube was always a hot potato at design stage – its size, format and technical specification being debated over and over again. Now its a real space it can really find its feet.

The cinema spaces are impressive (as you would expect) and a far cry from the uncomfortable, compromising spaces of the old Phoenix building. I loved the finish of the third screen ( a space I used to bang on about endlessly) but projection problems – caused by problems with the wireless connection to the projection room – did slightly marr my enjoyment of Morris – a life with Bells On. Mind its still a highly entertaining – if slightly silly – film.

Upstairs the intriguingly titled etc suite (in design we couldn’t come up with anything better than the multi purpose suite) offers a range of opportunities – and its opening out onto the courtyard is a real bonus. Even empty the courtyard space promises much. Essentially the courtyard sits in the middle of the building on the 1st floor level – surrounded on four sides by the workspaces of depot 2 and appartments. I always thought of it as the communal square, the village green of the building where audiences, people working and living in the building could meet and play. In the summer months it offers opportunities for open air screenings, events (silent disco anyone?), installations (we had talked about models like at the serpentine who create a new pavilion each year). No other media centre has a space like it – its a real USP and one I hope will really get exploited.

The workspaces and appartments came relatively late into the project, initially to unlock some much needed capital – essentially selling the fresh air above the building – ended up not releasing capital but did unleash a powerful partnership with Blueprint (developers) and the LCB Depot which became critical to seeing the project through. It also gives the building a mass and size which it otherwise wouldn’t have had and contributes to the overall effect. Even Julian’s (Marsh – the architect) lime green treatment of the external wallswhich worried many of us– especially when the name Limehouse was being suggested – works brilliantly. Occupancy levels still have someway to go yet but already you get a sense of the community and interaction between users which will make this building thrive.

It’s not without its problems of course! The recession has hit Leicester hard – and at a critical time. Without development around Phoenix Square the location will be tricky (low grade industrial buildings at night are not particularly appealing). The routes to the building are unclear, once found many punters are being drawn to the wrong entrance and the promised walkway from the station to the building is yet to materialise. Internally the public spaces need to be teeming with digital work or else they can feel aesthetically cold and lifeless. Operationally teething problems with projection, on line ticketing and the such like need to be resolved quickly so that Phoenix can truly claim to be a 21st Century Media Centre. All that said you can’t argue with the fact that both catering and box office sales are well ahead of budget!

Throughout the development of the project I can remember worrying that DMC (the project had various names throughout its development from Film and Media Centre to Digital Media Centre) was going to be poor the cousin of its seemingly more glamorous cousins in Nottingham (Broadway) and Derby (QUAD).

I needn’t have worried. This is a building teeming with real and virtual life, with an excitement and energy. Its far from a finished product of course – and it will be the people and the work that really make the building fly – but I’m proud to have been part of the team that imagined and developed the toolkit they have to play with. There were many who thought it would never happened (I wish I’d had a £ for the number of times I got told it was a pipe dream, or it wont happen, or we’ve been here before). But it has happened – and it was and it is absolutly worth it.

Bon Voyage Phoenix Square!!

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