Ben Kelly, the designer of The Haçienda, talks us through the club’s iconic design aesthetic
The idea for The Haçienda, the Manchester nightclub and music venue, arrived in the autumn of 1980, following New Order’s first tour of the US, where they’d found themselves soaking up the ample nightlife available on the road.
“When they were in New York, they got to see all these amazing clubs with their manager, Rob Gretton,” recalls Ben Kelly, who would subsequently be hired to do the design. “They came back to Manchester and said, ‘We want our own place like that’. So that really was the birth of The Haçienda.”
Interior designer Kelly, who has curated ‘Haçienda Landscapes’, a book of unseen photos of The Haçienda being brought to life, wasn’t the first choice as designer. Originally the Factory Records team – Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus, Rob Gretton and New Order – had enlisted Peter Saville for the task.
“He took one look at it and said, ‘There’s no way I could do this – but I know a man who can’,” says Kelly.
Kelly and Saville had known each other for a few years since Saville had moved down to London. They initially worked together on the sleeve design for OMD’s first album. It was a departure for Kelly from the field of interior design, but his influence on the distinctive sleeve came from the industrial features he’d added to Howie, a shop he’d designed in London’s Covent Garden.
“So I get a phone call, and I find myself on a train going to Manchester,” remembers Kelly. “I was met by the manager of the project, a chap called Howard ‘Ginger’ Jones, who drove us to 11-13 Whitworth Street West, where I remember meeting Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus. I was given a tour of the building, which was in a fairly poor condition. I think that the Factory guys thought that it was a reasonably straightforward project – a lick of paint, tart it up, put a bar in and away you go, but I realised early on that it was much bigger than that. They took me around the place, and afterwards they said, ‘Do you want the job?’. Usually you’re in competition with a load of other designers and you have to do a pitch. I just looked back in amazement and said, ‘Of course, I want the job!’.”
Working with Factory turned out to be chaotic, as anyone associated with them will attest.
“The scale of it was enormous,” says Kelly. “I had never designed a club before, but they had also never commissioned one either, so there was a huge amount of naivety on both sides. But that meant I wasn’t carrying any preconceptions or baggage about what it might be. The more I showed the Factory team my design ideas, the more they wanted. It grew and grew organically from there.”
In a flourish of typical audaciousness, Tony Wilson named The Haçienda after the urgent call to action in ‘Formulaire Pour Un Urbanisme Nouveau’ (‘Formulary For A New Urbansim’), written by Ivan Chtcheglov in 1953. A member of the subversive Situationist International, in a typically oblique, utopian stroke of artistic intent Chtcheglov, stated: “You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist. The hacienda must be built.”
The unique spelling of the club’s name, though, came from Peter Hook. The addition of a cedilla created the number 51 within the name, a reflection of its Factory catalogue number, FAC51.
Clever though it was, the name initially baffled Kelly.
“When they first said what they wanted to call it, I was shocked,” he admits. “It conjured up an image of traditional buildings in Mexico rather than a nightclub in Manchester. And then I found out that Tony had this obsession with Cold War spies. The main bar was going to be called the Kim Philby bar, the other bars were called The Gay Traitor and Hicks, both of which were named after other spies. There was this layer of extraordinary narrative, which was stitched into the whole design of the thing and enriched everything, layer upon layer upon layer.”
Kelly set about approaching the design as if it were a huge sculpture or painting, and talks about it as being like a vast laboratory for his design ideas. Many of the features that became synonymous with The Haçienda – and arguably the entire 1980s – the colours, shapes and presentation were, in fact, practical.
“As the design developed, I realised that the dancefloor was one step above the main floor, which was a trip hazard,” he remembers. “There needed to be some way of resolving that problem. I came up with the idea of using black and white roadside bollards, spaced in what was meant as a filtering system onto and off the dancefloor, to mark the changing level. And then I put cat’s eyes on the main floor in line with the bollards. The roof of the building was held up with these giant steel I-shaped beams. I realised these are risky things on a dancefloor and that people were going to disastrously hurt themselves, so I needed to find a way of marking those sorts of dangers.
“I looked to environments where that kind of thing happens in industry, where there’s a whole language of hazard markers – things like yellow and black diagonal stripes – which I kind of adapted and reconfigured with different colours and applied in different ways. Suddenly, the layering of that vernacular with the political stuff from the Situationists and the Cold War spies, made this hybrid that was totally unique. And because it was Factory, it was allowed to be unique.”
The Haçienda opened on 21 May 1982 and lasted 15 years – a brief existence perhaps, but not when compared to other clubs. As time went on, the door was increasingly controlled by Manchester gangs. Drugs and guns crept onto the dancefloor, while bar takings collapsed as loved-up clubbers eschewed cocktails in favour of bottled water. The police seemed reluctant to intervene, DJs were receiving threats and refusing to perform, and, following an ecstasy-related death, Tony Wilson decided it was time to shutter The Haçienda for good.
For Kelly, the club had reached the height of the success he had envisaged it would achieve.
“It was rammed full. People were dancing on every single surface that you could possibly get on. That made me very happy because, in a sense, that was my ultimate ambition – that the democracy of the idea would run right through the club, and that those who came could almost take the place over.”
In Guy Debord’s Situationist manifesto, he asserts that the culture the group wanted to create would “not be dominated by the need to leave traces”, yet The Haçienda has imprinted its myriad traces onto popular culture.
“I think that Tony Wilson would be very happy to know that the legacy is up and running,” reflects Kelly. “In many respects, The Haçienda is still there. There’s an exhibition at the V&A Dundee about nightlife, which has got a chunk of the club in it. There’s my book, ‘Haçienda Landscapes’, and there’s the orchestra, Haçienda Classical. I just say The Haçienda never dies. It lives. It’s never gonna stop.”
‘Haçienda Landscapes’, by Ben Kelly and photographer Eugene Schlumberger, published by Chocolate Grinder Editions