Friday18 August 2017

How buildings sit in their landscape

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Gillian Darley on using surroundings to frame architecture

A former director of the Whitworth Art Gallery, then part of Manchester University, remarked that ‘a good museum or gallery should be a place where people feel comfortable. If it stands in a garden or park, the visitors should be able to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors as a counterpoint to what is within.’

More than 80 years later, her aspiration was put at the heart of the brief given to MUMA, as they remodelled the gallery and pushed it out into, and over, the park beyond. Glass encloses the café, seemingly floating in the branches of nearby trees while frequent vistas, in and out, and a new entrance (deliberately underwhelming?) show the design as it plays push and pull between the gallery and its location, close to some of Manchester’s most deprived areas including Moss Side.

Whether such architectural ploys, aligned with an adventurous programme, can bridge the immense divide between a disadvantaged, even suspicious, audience and an important cultural institution in the city is a discussion for another day, but landscape as a helping hand for architectural ambition is an intriguing topic.

Whitworth Gallery Manchester

Source: Alan Williams

The Whitworth re-opens at the end of next week


In central London, the 17th century gardens of Grays and Lincolns Inns and the leafy and later Bloomsbury squares to their north, are the lynchpins in the handsome city fabric that grew up in the area. To reinsert open space is more difficult but the proposals for reconfiguring Tottenham Court Road envisage a sequence of small lungs of breathing space linked by the central artery. Opportunely enough, just off it on Store Street, Rethinking the Urban Landscape, there is an exhibition organised by the Landscape Institute and the Building Centre (where it is on show) demonstrating the myriad ways of dealing with and designing open space in the city, though the unrelenting presentation of the work, regardless of scale or location, unfortunately left me little the wiser.

However, one theme is water, so often an opportunity ignored by those building on its banks (consider the Thames….). But remodelled docks – with water retained – offer a rich palette of existing buildings alongside empty sites.

Antwerp’s Het Eilandje – the old inner dock – found a satisfactory use for the mid 19th century wool-staplers’ (that is, dealers) premises that now, thanks to low ceilings and a deep plan, are an ideal home for the city archives. Elsewhere the Red Star Line sheds house an impressive museum of emigration from the port to north America, while from the upper floors of the Mas Museum a 360 degree view of the city opens up, showing how on the whole the urban fabric meets, absorbs and takes its lead from its waterside location, both on the banks of the river Schelde and around the man-made docks.



Awkward and stiff - new blocks by the Antwerp waterfront


Yet development pressures on the area, inevitably perhaps now housing a prosperous marina, have also involved the piecemeal sacrifice of worthwhile buildings (such surviving from the Napoleonic era) while the awkwardness shown in a matching set of residential towers (nearing completion) by various carefully chosen northern European architects – including David Chipperfield – suggests that a waterside location does not, of itself, guarantee a happy balance between an opportune landscape and strong architecture. They stand stiffly, like awkward guests at a lacklustre party, spaced out at regular intervals along the quayside, rendering the advantages of the site entirely irrelevant.



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