25 Feb 2011
Box of Delights - Nottingham Contemporary
Canopy, plaza and entrance to Garners Hill steps
This new art gallery is an extraordinary building. It has been highly praised by architectural critics and in the art world but its uncompromising and highly unusual design initially guaranteed a rough ride with public opinion. When computer generated images of the building were first released there was a barrage of hostile public reaction which threatened to derail planning permission. However political support was maintained, the gallery was built and has been outstandingly popular with visitors. Of course this owes a lot to the exhibitions themselves, like the crowd-pleasing Hockney retrospective which opened the gallery, and to intelligent shows like Star City: The Future of Communism, which included a giant spaceman for fun. However the building itself is a big part of this success.
One of the great townscape sights of England
Nottingham Contemporary has a fantastic location. It is built on the Lace Market escarpment above the Trent Valley. You can see it from the Station. The Nottingham tram viaduct runs straight towards it, veering off at the last moment. The view of the Lace Market cliff with its churches, the Shire Hall, grand warehouses and the reminders of the elegant pre-industrial town all piled up above is one of the great townscape sights of England, reminiscent of Italian hill towns. However the gallery is on the edge of the Lace Market at the interface with the commercial core of the city and the much harsher environment of the awful Broadmarsh shopping centre below the cliff. The Middle Hill road viaduct built in the 1970s forms one edge of the site. It blasted through the historic Weekday Cross onto which Nottingham Contemporary faces and the new gallery is an important part of the successful reinvention of Weekday Cross as a place, now lively with restaurants, bars and delis.
Light and rhythm: Middle Hill
Although a brilliant location, the site was also hugely challenging. It is small and wedge shaped, falling 4 stories (13m) from Weekday Cross down Garners Hill to Broadmarsh. The old Town Hall stood here until it was destroyed for the construction of the Great Central Railway in 1898. The gallery sits partly in the old railway cutting with a tunnel behind together with filled cellars alongside Garners Hill steps. It remained derelict until the 1980s when a landscaped pocket park was created as part of the regeneration of the Lace Market. However drug users became a problem and the park was closed. The loss of the park was one of the reasons for opposition to the new gallery but actually Nottingham Contemporary has reintroduced an important public building to the site of the old Town Hall, surely quite an appropriate achievement.
The aspiration for a new modern art gallery came from the City Council, East Midlands Arts, and the two Nottingham universities. There is a strong artistic presence in the City which allegedly has more artists per head than anywhere else in the country. The Project Board wanted the gallery to be in the historic Lace Market warehouse area which is the focus of the artistic community. The City owned the Weekday Cross site.
The architects Caruso St. John won the competition, beating some very big name architects, on the basis of the concept for the gallery rather than a specific building design. Adam Caruso was of course well known, particularly for his Walsall Gallery, but here he took a quite different approach. What emerged from the design process was a building whose geometry is derived very directly from the irregular site and topography. It takes as its context the Victorian Lace Market warehouses, but this is not done in an obvious way. His concept is a reinterpretation of the principles of those buildings, which were high-tech construction in their day but richly decorated to reflect the city and architectural history. His key inspirational buildings were actually Sullivan's Guaranty Building in Buffalo adorned with lavish terracotta decoration and Berlage's wonderful Holland House next to the Gherkin, clad in greenish glazed tiles with a black granite plinth.
Thrilling and shocking
What emerged was both thrilling and shocking. Owen Hatherley's pithy summary is that the building is like 'a series of curtly corrugated boxes stepping down a hill whose green and gold concrete cladding is … dressed in lace patterns'. This is not architecture which is trying to please. It is not afraid of making an impression but neither is it attention-seeking. It is complex with a strong and coherent logic responding to the brief and the site and expressing a deeply held artistic integrity and takes time to understand.
During the early days of construction: the GCR tunnel still visible
Although the gallery design was not trying to offend it certainly succeeded and its critics rushed to judgement. In addition to the pre-existing unhappiness that it would be built on what had been a pocket park and the inevitable scepticism about modern art it was going to be GREEN CONCRETE! Has any other building material ever acquired such innuendo?
Criticisms came at both an informed level from many people and groups who cared passionately about the city and the Lace Market in particular and also from the 'what a waste of money' brigade. The local media enjoyed this hugely and the politicians were quickly unsettled.
Beautiful elevation by Caruso St John but sub-editors want CGI
I was Director of Planning at the time and had to deal with the problem that this very thoughtful and complex building was being judged largely on the basis of computer generated images of the exterior. Communicating architectural concepts is a huge issue as lay people and councillors find it difficult to 'read' drawings or understand plans in three dimensions. Usually the most effective tool is an artist's impression, even allowing for the licence of fictional landscaping and smiling happy people. However CGI is a much harder and more unforgiving medium which does not flatter and in my experience usually does not convince.
Birkin's nineteenth century lace pattern
Adam Caruso had quickly convinced the planning team of the merits of his building, even if there were lingering doubts about the imprinting of the concrete with a lace pattern, the canopy over the top of Garners Hill and creating the new plaza at an intermediate level. Adam is articulate and confident but also very thorough and down to earth – very different from the caricature of a starchitect. We arranged a special presentation to the Planning Committee with a Q&A session before the formal hearing. There were a lot of sensible and quite challenging questions, many about very practical things like sustainability, energy, maintenance arrangements, dealing with vandalism etc, rather than discussion over the design. It was very noticeable that as Adam demonstrated how carefully thought through every aspect of the building was his confident and straight forward answers won over the Committee which voted unanimously for the scheme.
City of contrasts #1: Genteel High Pavement
City of contrasts #2: The unrelenting Broadmarsh neighbour
Nevertheless as the building emerged there continued to be a high level of public criticism. The prevalent view was that the building was 'out of character'. Which begs the question – out of character with what? The gallery has in fact created a new character and new public spaces for what was the interspace between three quite different character areas and in the process has drawn them together. Despite its highly individual design Nottingham Contemporary is actually very respectful to the scale of its neighbours – it is only one storey high to Weekday Cross allowing views of the buildings piled up beyond it and not challenging the dominance of the old Unitarian Church (now the Pitcher & Piano). Viewed on the skyline its volumes look very appropriate, almost part of the cliff itself.
Fluted lace panels
One of the triumphs of the building is the finely cast fluted concrete panels. These were beautifully executed by the local firm Trent Concrete and demonstrate the possibilities of this material. The jade green of the concrete is subtle, subdued. The reference to Victorian precedent may be questionable but so what – it is part of the architect's creative imagination and that is what counts. Many people including myself were sceptical about the lace motif, which does seem a bit naff if you live in a place which used to advertise itself as 'City of Lace and Legends'. But actually it is a triumph, quite stunning – more so because it is used sparingly.
Weekday Cross, civic and reminiscent of The Krause Music Store
The masterstroke of the gallery is its relationship with the street. At Weekday Cross there is a huge window into the main gallery, so the gallery becomes part of the streetscene and actually frames exhibits. Subtly you do not enter here but further along the street at the top of Garners Hill, where there are very clear views into the reception area and galleries. Although counter intuitive, this is actually very legible, partly due to the deep canopy across the public space at the top of Garners Hill, which I had thought would be oppressive but works really well as the entrance actually becomes a continuity with the street.
Building meets cliff: Garners Hill
Garners Hill, which used to be narrow steps, has been re-imagined as a grand staircase down to a new south facing public space at first floor level. Again this has been a masterstroke as it actually creates an interesting, sheltered and quite intimate terrace for the café in what is actually quite a hostile environment, with the tram and road viaducts adjacent and with servicing and the unresolved issues of the redevelopment of Broadmarsh at the level below.
Cafe - south facing
Whereas the building exterior appears complex and challenging, its interior plan is very simple and very clear. The galleries are on the top level, accessed through the reception and shop. A very generous staircase takes you down to the education area and offices on the floor below and down again to the performance hall and café. The stairwell is beautiful, wedge shaped and in smooth concrete with a big window onto Garners Hill and the Unitarian Church beyond. The performance area is a wonderful space, like a big concrete cave (very appropriately in this area). It allegedly mimics the qualities of 'found space' with its irregularities and layers of meaning. The café is stylishly fitted out, really the only area to be so. It has rock and roll chick electronic signage.
Raw concrete stairwell
Whatever the misgivings about what the building looked like it was clear from the outset that people loved the gallery and the space. What is interesting is how this changed perceptions – people learnt to appreciate the building from the inside rather than judging the outside as so much urban wallpaper. There may still be some critics but Nottingham Contemporary is undoubtedly a huge success story. For me the building has done exactly what Adam Caruso set out to do. It is a very high- tech functional building but is 'decorated' so that it looks almost like a jewel box. Interestingly this is reflected inside in the library and the 'cabinet of curiosities' which is a real delight. The gallery is also like your city living room (well actually rather nicer than my living room). It is accessible, inviting and it is free. This is civilisation. Please God may it survive the Big Society.
Learning to appreciate the building - parkour style
Owen Hatherley concludes that 'this is a terrific piece of work...the building steadfastly refuses to be obvious. Walking in and around and through the place's concrete surfaces, its patterns, colours and angles I wonder if this might be the first masterpiece of British architecture in the twenty first century'. I cannot better that conclusion.
The Cafe Bar at Nottingham Contemporary serves Castle Rock's Harvest Pale.
Owen Hatherley: Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain
Ellis Woodman in Building Design
Kieran Long in the Architects' Journal
Chris Matthews: Snottingham