Thursday03 September 2015

Vinoly’s hidden treasure

From: The culture blog

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Rafael Viñoly’s troubled Firstsite contemporary arts building in Colchester, Essex – dubbed the Golden Banana – will finally open later this month, doubtlessly to muted fanfare.

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.

Rafael Viñoly

Rafael Viñoly’s firstsite in Colchester

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.

Aerial view of Rafael Viñoly

Aerial view of Rafael Viñoly’s firstsite in Colchester

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.

Readers' comments (2)

  • zecks_marquise

    while the gold cladding certainly does fit into the cliched image of the essex chav with huge gold ear rings, i fail to understand why the entire roof needed to be clad in the same material. The only ones who can see it are the sea gulls.

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  • It's unfortunate that the writer doesn't focus more on attention on the interior , which really is the architectural achievement of this building.

    I spent 2 years as part of the project team (not at RVA I hasten to add) constructing the VAF and aspects one enjoys from within it's sloped shell are a testament to the subtle plays on geometery that Julian Kinal (the project architect) worked incredibly hard with the team to deliver. The interior and exterior of the auditorium are fabulous spaces, while the arcing curve that runs the length of the building's south elevation enable the patron to be drawn along the entire building to what is a peaceful and well proportioned restaurant at its end.

    The building is out of place no doubt but what is great architecture for if not to challenge those who look upon it.

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