Articles from our writers
The People’s Palace: The New Art Gallery Walsall
Emma Sinha, Birmingham City University Part II
It has been 10 years since The New Art Gallery opened its doors to the people of Walsall and it has been 7 years since my last visit. In celebration of its 10th anniversary, architect Peter St John gave a guided tour through the spaces created for the collection. I first admired this building when I studied it as part of an art project for college. Returning to the gallery allowed me to see how this building had evolved. I could examine the building as a whole; not just in space but also in time. Like people, buildings change with age, constantly refined and reshaped by their occupants. This notion backs up Winston Churchill’s quote that ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’
Designing an art gallery is a difficult task for any architect; the problem is striking a balance between artwork and architecture. The challenge for architects is to design a building that displays artwork in a stimulating way without detracting from the collection. Caruso St John architects have solved this problem by designing with a different typology. Their proposal was described as a ‘big house’ to be explored and discovered by visitors as they move between floors. Using the idea of a house implies a hierarchy where the different emotions of spaces can be conveyed.
Walsall has the typical attributes of a post-industrial town. The gallery stands like a tower acting as an anchor point in the town that does not overpower its surroundings but reflects the stern architecture of the warehouses and factories surrounding it. The façade of the tower is made up of terracotta tiles punctured by many windows that hung like picture frames. The thin fragile nature of the tiles brings delicacy to the tower. The windows are of a varying scale (from domestic to copious) and they flood the gallery with light while allowing views to the town below. Strategically placed viewing points connect users to the outside world.
It was a pleasant surprise to find that this building had evolved simultaneously with time and its occupants. Stewart Brand discusses the idea of ‘how buildings learn’ and can improve over time if they are allowed to. Buildings can tell stories if they are allowed and if their past is flaunted rather than concealed. The New Art Gallery does exactly that. Douglas fir has been used throughout the floors of the gallery spaces. Even though this material has a warm and rich texture and colour creating an intimate feel within the spaces, the softwood has been marked by various people’s shoes showing who has used the space and how they have used it. In this sense, the building’s story can be traced.
The architects have constantly connected what is happening in the town with the design of this building. For example, the spaces open off the entrance foyer that resembles a town square and on the ground level stainless steel is used to reflect the flow of people into the body of the gallery. However, as a forceful and distinctive structure both inside and out, the gallery does not attempt to be complete in itself. It is rather something that is completed by the art it exhibits and the visitors that use the space.
Gordon O'Connor-Read, Part 2 Bartlett School of Architecture
The Christmas season was approaching and there were rumours of discontent from among the wider student population. Those sparkling lights of Oxford and Regent Streets seemed that bit duller, and with the weather closing in, this was not the season to be cheerful. The television stations and newspaper headlines were under the assumptions that students had overrun Parliament and that, ultimately, obedience and youth seldom go together.
Converging on Whitehall and Westminster with placards and slogans, the tuition-fee protests were not too distant from the egalitarian fever that permeated the public housing debate of the 1930s through to the 1960s, something somehow non-existent in the landscape of governmental buildings along Whitehall. As an architecture student I didn’t have the time for any activism, or any ‘kettling’ for that matter, yet it occurred to me that if we were to look at the role of the political institution as a piece of architectural edifice, we would raise important questions regarding its inherent definition as a value system.
To echo Thomas Paine, ‘Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage, is but a necessary evil’. As architects and designers, or ‘glorified accountants with drawing boards’, as one tutor of mine once put it, what do we value? With the Palace of Westminster or the Capitol building, we entrust our aspirations for the future and all its virtues. But have we become numbed by the apparent ineffectiveness of the governments they house to evoke what we value? Should we question ourselves as to why we create such edifices?
The way in which the homestead of any democracy is presented has obvious repercussions for a how a government as a body and a nation at large are perceived. It could be argued that the genesis of hostility towards a government, apart from the actions of its members, can be attributed to the authoritarian perception of the seat of power.
The Palace of Westminster aesthetically has more in common with Victorian law-courts and jailhouses than policy-making in the 21st century. However, there have been major milestones over the past two decades where the introduction of a new or refurbished parliamentary centre in a democratic state has given its citizens a focal point for progressive change and civic pride, notably the Holyrood Building, Scottish Parliament, Senedd, National Assembly for Wales, and the Reichstag, Berlin. What underpins all three of these political institutions is the element of transparency, allowing the public to observe the going-ons within the debating chamber.
We may never be fortunate enough to physically peer into the lobby corridors of Parliament like a John le Carre novel, but as these are devices of democratic discourse, then maybe we should begin to invest our own value system into a new form of architecture that can reignite our belief in the democratic system.
Steven David Jones, Part 2 at Oxford Brookes
It may seem obvious that Detroit, the Motor City, is geared for the car, but its scale is something that a British person like myself could never comprehend. Detroit is a city built for two million, but with a population of only 800,000. It can fit Manhattan Island, Minneapolis and the whole of San Francisco within its city limits, all at the same time with space left over.
The city grew up in the era of the motor car, with Henry Ford building his first mass production factory for the Model T Ford in Detroit. It caused the city to boom in the coming years and drew millions of people to it.
It is immediately apparent that the city has had a rather turbulent past, with many of the issues surrounding the city today being based on historical segregation matters, wealth disparity and the emigration of the motor industries.
As with all good things, the height of the motor industry in Detroit came to an end, and this had a detrimental effect on the city. I don’t want to focus purely on the negatives, but having made a trip to see this fantastic place, meeting a wide range of people and working with The University of Detroit Mercy Architecture Department, it was amazing to see how this city could develop.
Detroit’s inhabitants work hard to create small scale improvements to their everyday lives. As a result of the disparity of services and infrastructure, people have a freedom not apparent in other cities. Without the constant control from higher bodies, people have turned open land into farm land and have started creative projects.
We visited Detroit Community College, which was set up by frustrated teachers and community members to help combat truancy in the local area. Through the hard work and determination of the staff and students, Detroit Community College offers children a place to learn and create in different ways, while still hitting the national educational targets. Architecture plays a key role in providing the school with a building that would echo their logic. It had open and bright shared spaces, allowing people to feel part of the school community but have the structured learning environments of the classrooms well.
We also saw many plans for city-wide restructuring, but for a city this huge and with limited finance, for an outsider it seems like an impossible feat. If architecture and policy makers play any part in changing this city it needs to be at a small scale. As already mentioned, it seems to be the small scale projects that have a vital role in changing the hopes and aspirations of Detroit people.
There’s real passion about Detroit; people see past the problems and strive to revitalise the city that they love. It is daunting to think that a city of such scale may never recover, but these small projects give a glimmer of hope to the future of the city and its people.