Rafael Vinoly Architects' glistening new arts centre completes but are its gallery spaces adequate for displaying the work within?
Colchester is a small Roman town in Essex, UK. Largely removed from the typical ‘Essex’ stereotypes (fake tan, white stilettos and unruly behaviour for those not in the know) the sleepy town is rapidly gaining a well-founded reputation for its stronghold in the creative industries.
To this end, a gleaming new artistic centre by Rafael Vinoly Architects opened to the public this past Sunday, entitled firstsite after its resident organisation of the same name. The 3,200 sq m volume is built on a steel frame wrapped in TECU Gold (a copper-aluminium alloy) and settled on Scheduled Ancient Monument Land on the outskirts of the town centre.
Rafael Vinoly Architects actually resituated firstsite in a revision to the original St Botolph’s Quarter Masterplan, moving the building eastwards away from the hubbub of Colchester’s community centre. As a result, the volume’s new home is surrounded by many historical entities, from the Roman wall that defines the site’s southern boundary to the Grade I Listed East House and Grade II gothic folly which flank the D-shaped eighteenth-century garden overlooked by many if firstsite’s internal gallery spaces.
The pinnacle of the firstsite complex however is the Roman mosaic sunken within the floor of the first exhibition space. Dating back to AD200, the intricately crafted artwork was uncovered by a local tenant in the 1920s and has since been beautifully restored and replaced at its original location. A thick sheet of glass protects the horizontally displayed mosaic and enables visitors to walk across it, much as they would’ve done thousands of years ago when the masterpiece was embedded in a dining room floor as experts believe it once was.
External aesthetics and site history aside, is the new building fit for purpose? The answer is yes and no. Internal orientation is simple and effective, one space gliding seamlessly into another across the site’s twelve different floor slab levels, subtle slopes aiding users on their course throughout the exhibition spaces. The overlapping cherry timber shells of the auditorium space are a sight to behold, and form a warm and inviting backdrop for the organisation’s plethora of upcoming visual events.
On the other hand, Vinoly’s harshly angled walls would be better suited to a performing arts centre or educational institution than a gallery space, as the photographic display on the most extensive angled plasterboard manages to lose a proportion of its impact as the viewer strains to connect with the slanted material. Harsh artificial lighting and long strip windows undermine many of the artworks, sliced through with unflattering beams of light which fail to illuminate the remainder of the internal space adequately, leaving dark corners contrasting noticeably with a number of over-lit exhibits. A photograph (see thumbnail to left) displays the effect this has on the aforementioned mosaic.
All in all the building is a success. Its aesthetic powers (and impressive status of the architect) will draw in crowds and lend an appropriately attractive setting for the work of creative organisation firstsite. The interior display spaces need slight adjustments including a harsh evaluation of the artificial lighting systems but such shifts are easily achieved and as Katherine Wood, Director of firstsite explains: “So much more than a beautiful gallery attracting art lovers from all over the country, I believe firstsite will be an important intersection between the community and artists, providing inspiration and encouragement to everyone to explore, create, relax and have fun.”