Saturday, September 12, 2009

Field Visit: Leicester's Cultural Quarter

Sat on a coach heading Southbound on the M1, I considered a time when the view from a moving vehicle was considered entertainment in itself, this was a long time ago in an era when travel was a novelty and something that many people did not regularly experience. As travel became more commonplace and its novelty value began to wear off, Penguin Books were at the forefront of companies that provided portable entertainment to occupy travellers, by producing small books that would easily fit into a jacket pocket. The transport environment today is an entertainment environment in which audio, video and internet access are commonplace, and one in which travellers can easily experience a wide range of mobile entertainment ranging from books and newspapers, to MP3 players and more commonly the all-in-one mobile communications device that boasts a number of features including MP3 player, gaming device and internet access. Indeed this was my own first experience of travelling long distance on board a coach where I had the opportunity to be entertained by my recently acquired iPhone 3GS – a superb mobile device, boasting a whole range of entertaining features and applications. I had just updated my Facebook status to ‘Am on my way to Leicester for a day of culture!’, as indeed I was, as part of the Leeds Metropolitan University 2009 staff development festival. It didn’t take long before a comment was left upon my update, which said ‘In Leicester?????’. As somebody who had only ever visited Leicester for football matches (away games I hasten to add), I could understand where the responder was coming from with that stereotypical sentiment, although I was aware that Leicester is indeed a city of many cultures, and was determined to go into this visit with an open mind.

Before I go any further, I’ll just mention a few facts about Leicester, which is a city situated in the County of Leicestershire in the East Midlands region of England, and according to the Leicester City Council website is the largest city in the East Midlands, as well as being Britain’s first ‘Environment City’ (achieved through a wide range of ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ initiatives). The city has a population of 280,000, which makes it the tenth most populous city in the UK (Leicester City Council, 2009). The city council website also mentions the ethnic diversity of Leicester, claiming that a third of the city’s population is made up from ethnic minority groups, many being from the Indian sub-continent, but there are also (amongst other groups) Kenyan and Ugandan Asians, Dutch Somalis and Eastern Europeans bringing with them, religions, festivals, music, dance, performance, foods, textiles and traditions that are representative of their families original birth countries. This cultural diversity also means that Leicester has a thriving cultural scene, celebrated by communities and often attracting interested onlookers that are keen to participate in ‘culturtainment’ experiences. We have not had a UK Census since 2001, but after the next one takes place in 2011, many are expecting Leicester to be confirmed as having an ethnic majority, making it the first city in Britain where ‘white British’ people are in a minority.

The purpose of the day’s visit was to see a number of attractions and bodies relating to Leicester’s cultural and creative industries. These would include the ‘cultural quarter’ incorporating the newly built Curve Theatre, the under construction Phoenix Arts Centre, and Leicester Creative Business Depot as well as a visit to a South Indian restaurant, and the picturesque University of Leicester Botanical Gardens. This article will focus upon the venues visited that are a part of Leicester’s cultural quarter.

First of all, a cultural quarter can be considered to be a zone, usually situated within an urban area where there are a concentration of organisations that are related to both the cultural and creative industries. These can range from visitor attractions such as museums and art galleries, to more local entertainment amenities such as cinemas and theatres, and organisations that specialise in creative entrepreneurship, including business-start-up and advice centres. Many cities have such areas, in the UK examples of these include: the River Tyne area between Newcastle and Gateshead; the Albert Dock area in Liverpool; and Holbeck Urban Village and nearby waterfront areas, as well as the West Yorkshire Playhouse area in Leeds. These areas are often purposefully built, and result in urban regeneration of typically ex-industrial sites, thus improving many cities aesthetically as well as financially. Cultural quarters are considered to be ‘hubs’ of culture, creativity, inspiration, education and enterprise, the net result of which is intended to be income generation through: monies spent by inbound visitors; new creative business enterprises starting up; and through inward investment from both the private and public sectors, including regional development agencies. Such areas epitomise controversial and often contested theories outlined by Richard Florida that the ‘creative class’ workforce being placed within close proximity of each other can result in ‘spillacrosses’ of creativity, and that innovation often takes place in geographically close areas to sources of new knowledge (Stolarick and Florida, 2006), making cultural quarters the ideal locations for improving creative output.

According to Leicester’s cultural quarter Projects Director - Mike Candler, the Leicester cultural quarter has cost upwards of £100million, but has already attracted investment estimated to be worth £61million, and this is before the cultural quarter is even complete, with the Phoenix Arts Centre still undergoing construction and renovation work, with an estimated completion date of November 2009.

Our first port of call on this visit was to the newly built curve theatre, where we were accompanied by Mike Candler, and The Curve’s Deputy Chief Executive – Stella McCabe. The Curve is a visually unique and eye-catching building, that was designed by architect Rafael Vinoly and is situated on Orton Square in Leicester, it replaces the Haymarket Theatre, which was Leicester’s ‘main’ theatre, that closed in 2007. The building itself has received ‘mixed’ reviews from locals appearance-wise, although it follows a trend for modern theatres to have an external artistic and innovative façade that is representative of the work taking place within the building. The Curve is surrounded by bollards that spin, give off light and also produce sounds, thus stimulating the senses of visitors before they have even entered the building. The building itself features three full floors and a mezzanine, all of which are suspended from the roof of the building, as well as a ground floor and basement.

The Curve is a refreshingly open-plan design, which is intended to bring the theatre’s key functional areas of administration and performance into close proximity, without the physical and psychological barriers of having ‘walls’ between them. The various open plan offices within the theatre wrap around the two main auditoriums, (which are insulated by 1 metre thick walls), one auditorium has 800 fixed seats, and the other one 400 movable seats, which gives flexibility in the performance space, the theatre also boasts (amongst other things) a recording studio, dance studio, and education space. The stage areas are designed to be flexible, with a powered flying system, and removable floor panels that allow for lifts to bring actors and props onto the stage from beneath. Such flexibility in this modern design is performance centered, allowing what happens on stage to dictate how the theatre operates, rather than the opposite, which is often the case in ‘old’ theatre buildings. A video of The Curve Theatre building is below.

Our next destination was the Phoenix Arts Centre, just a short one minute walk from The Curve. The Phoenix Arts Centre is a mixed-use building, incorporating office space, residential units, cinema, theatre, bar, café, areas for the exhibition of art, and a creative business-start-up facility. It sits on the site of the Phoenix Theatre, which was operational from 1963 until 1987, before undergoing renovation and re-opening as the Phoenix Arts Centre. This has subsequently been demolished and re-built, and is due to open fully in November 2009. This very modern building features an internal outdoor square that will serve as an open social space at the very heart of the building – thus facilitating creative ‘spillacrosses’ from those who use the building. The video below gives some indication of the building’s design.

Our final destination in Leicester’s cultural quarter was Leicester Creative Business Depot (LCBD) which is a creative enterprise business incubator, and according to the LCBD website is a ‘state-of-the-art facility that has been designed with flair and imagination, incorporating elements of the old architecture, modern design and Public art works’ (LCBD, 2009). In an unashamedly Richard Florida-esque style, LCBD offers a creative community of people high quality workspaces, in a stimulating environment that includes art and architecture that have been designed to get the creative juices of those within flowing - at least that’s the theory anyway. What LCBD does represent is the growing recognition of the importance of the creative industries, particularly when Britain is in a recession. On the very day that we visited Leicester, over the other side of the Midlands in Birmingham, Joanna Birch was reporting in the Birmingham Post newspaper that ‘the Midlands region has an incredible amount of talent in terms of expertise and knowledge in all aspects of content development’ (Birch, 2009), in an article that was designed to highlight the importance of the creative industries to the regions and the countries economy. In fact at the 2007 Local Government Association Conference, Peter Chandler of LCBD stated that (pre-recession) the creative sector was a key growth area, and in relation to SMEs was growing 6% nationally annually (Chandler, 2007).

Leicester’s cultural quarter (like many other similar areas globally), represents both change and hope for what the future may bring locally and beyond, in terms of improved economies and transformed societies. Whilst the immediate changes are evident in terms of altered landscapes and revitalised urban areas, the longer term changes are what these ‘hubs’ are really designed for, with improved economies through the nurturing of local creative enterprises, and a more culturally aware and educated local population. The recognition that the cultural and creative industries can improve our societies economically and socially means that if your town or city doesn’t currently have a ‘cultural quarter’, you can guarantee that your local authority has one eye on the likes of Leicester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle / Gateshead, and the other eye on just where they might like their own cultural quarter to be. On a personal note, I would like to add that my perceptions of Leicester as a city of culture have changed for the better as a result of this visit, and I would certainly encourage anybody reading this, to pay a visit to the cultural quarter themselves, particularly the impressive Curve Theatre.


Birch, J. (2009) Can the Midlands creative industries revolutionise the UK economy?. [Internet] URL available from: Accessed 12th September, 2009.

Chandler, P. (2007) The cultural economy. A powerhouse for the future?. [Internet] URL available from: Accessed 12th September, 2009.

Leicester City Council. (2009) About Leicester. [Internet] URL available from: Accessed 12th September, 2009.

Leicester Creative Business Depot. (2009) Leicester Creative Business Depot. [Internet] URL available from: Accessed 12th September, 2009.

Stolarick, K. and Florida, R. (2006) Creativity, connections and innovation: a study of linkages in the Montréal region. Environment and planning. Vol. 38, pp.1799-1817.

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