Posted by: ninian macqueen13 September 2011
Following a troubled gestation period, which saw a messy tangle of disputes develop between client and contractor – not to mention angry locals and seemingly impotent councillors – the half-finished shell was left dormant for well over a year, until work began again fairly recently. It is now due to be officially opened on the September 25, three years later than originally intended.
I don’t want to waste space talking about the complex bureaucracy at work, but it’s worth mentioning so we can appreciate just how much is at stake. It is not just Viñoly’s reputation in the region that I’m worried about, but more importantly the opportunity to demonstrate, to a sceptical local population starved of top quality design, the value of carefully considered architecture and the importance of investing in art.
By spending about £28 million, Firstsite hopes to achieve a world-class building that will underline the region’s ambition to foster a new status as a serious player on the national and international art stage. It is also intended to instigate the urban and cultural regeneration of Colchester itself. Lofty ambitions that from a distance seem achievable and could easily provide a well-needed boost to what this patchy “cultural quarter” needs.
The primary move by the architect was to create a north-facing crescent-shaped arts building, clad in a “distinctive gold-hued skin of copper-and-aluminium alloy panels”, framing an 18th century garden and some Roman ruins.
From outside its front door, the semi-circular shaped extrusion — with its lower eastern end sweeping upwards to an impressive double-height entrance space and portico in the west — is a bold and exciting gesture. Especially in this particular part of Essex, among a fragmented collection of tired and dirty-looking brick buildings and some fairly attractive Georgian architecture to the north.
The main accommodation – including gallery spaces, conference facilities and a café – is arranged as a series of objects that are pressed against the inner northern edge, peeking at views of the garden and houses beyond. The main exhibition space is opposite, running the full length.
Interestingly, it is fairly similar to Zaha Hadid’s recently opened transport museum in Glasgow, especially because Viñoly’s building does feel slightly corridor-like due to its long and fairly narrow footprint. However, unlike its Glaswegian counterpart, this one is of a more humble scale and seems to possess a stronger connection to the outside. It is a much more pleasant place to be.
However, there is a drawback. The main problem is that this grand open-ended gesture is pointed clumsily towards the back wall of the adjacent Minories building. This means that the main entrance is tucked away and hidden from view when approaching from the high street to the north. In fact the only clear view of the front door is afforded to visitors approaching from the west down a narrow back alley or those that have accidentally wandered north from the bus station.
Also the flatness of the roof combined with its general low-lying nature isn’t great. The designers are at pains to point out that the gentle slope of the roof follows the gradient of the ground and the approximate heights of the surrounding buildings. I’m not sure why this is important, as it results in a building that fails to properly announce itself to passers by.
From a distance I could only really catch glimpses along the tree line of what, in parts, could easily have been a single-storey retail shed. It is an odd contextual quirk that threatens to cause problems, especially as a public building usually lives or dies by how many people can find the front door.