Rogue and AWOL. Making spaces.

On Saturday I visited two spaces made for creativity. Until 2017 both were in early 19th century mills, close to Manchester city centre.

By Manchester's Finest | 13 August 2019

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One still is, the other decamped to Openshaw by necessity, when it fell under the ‘development’ banner (or hammer) in that year.

Rogue were housed in Crusader Mill, just behind Piccadilly Station, a listed mill built in the heat of the Industrial Revolution to construct machinery for the textile industry. Last century it became crammed with knitting workshops and towards the end of that century a University of Salford ex-student established the creative hub known as Rogue. A not-for-profit, self-governing operation providing affordable studio space for artists.

But to call Colin Sinclair simply a ‘Salford graduate’ is a little light. When Colin established Rogue in the 90s he had managed bands for Factory and was also the owner of The Boardwalk, home to Oasis, The Happy Mondays and James.

From there he became the CEO of MIDAS (Manchester’s Inward Investment Agency), then a director of Bruntwood and is now CEO of Knowledge Quarter Liverpool.  His LinkedIn profile today starts with, “I am passionate about innovation.” Exactly.

Rogue – with the help of Manchester City Council and the Arts Council – moved into a large Victorian school building in Openshaw two years ago – also a listed building which had been empty since 2012.

This new environment and that of Crusader Mill could not be more different. Ex-industrial and ex-educational buildings do not, of course, have the same roots. The school in Openshaw is, I suspect, much easier to manage that what was a fairly crumbling but enigmatic mill building.

Whilst the school still needs some repair, the space is largely wide open and well lit. The school hall itself providing what is now much more recognisable as a gallery space.

Almost a hundred artists – from graduates to established artisans – occupy the spirit if not the soul of Crusader Mill.

Yes, I miss the patina of crumbling plaster work and the Victorian winding stone staircases. But thank goodness Rogue have a new home and remain a cultural resource, rather than just fading away.

It’s not just artists and photographers who occupy the spaces. The Noise Orchestra – for example – are researching and applying ‘graphical sound,’ – translating light into sound. Their workshop at Rogue is wacky and fascinating.

Although I am purposefully in this piece trying not to pick out individual works, I did find Michelle Leigh’s expressionist ‘The Summer Courtships, Gorton,’ alluring. The Wikipedia definition of Expressionism is, ‘Emotional experience rather than physical reality.’ Michelle’s large canvas has captured the emotion of Summer, Gorton and courtship beautifully.

On to AWOL, occupying four floors of Hope Mill in Ancoats. History first. Again listed, again built at the start of the 19th century. Again, of course, cotton and weaving related. Again, decline through the last century but rescued by The Hope Mill Partnership in 2001.

Manchester innovation again: Hope Mill was designed with a prototype steel roof structure, employing (research tells me), ‘compression and tension in structure.’ A building system which English Heritage describe as being of ‘international significance.’

The four floors occupied by AWOL workshops are complemented by the Hope Mill Theatre and bar on the ground floor – what was originally the steam engine room. Almost a hundred residents are, however, not necessarily artists, but also artisans, makers and businesses.

Yes, they are all creative tenants, but the creativity takes in everything from tattooing to soap making, to wedding dress making.

So here I am in the patinated and aged and sometimes crumbling staircases and corridors which are, in themselves, works of art and colour and history. A history exemplified by the creakiest floors in Christendom, which have withstood getting on for two hundred years of footfall. It’s impossible to walk the corridors of AWOL quietly…

Yes the various workshops and studios are fascinating in their own right, as are the occupants. But the light, faded colour and atmosphere of this big creative club are in themselves a treat.

I think that the interior design brief for Hope Mill, AWOL and Hope Mill Theatre would have been, ‘Make it look Bohemian darling.’ But the building has managed that for itself.