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M Shed, Bristol by LAB Architecture Studio

Following a U-turn in favour of a retrofit brief, there is little to be seen of LAB Architecture Studio’s trademark styling in the M Shed museum, writes Rob Gregory. Photography by Richard Bryant

It had better be bloody good for £27 million,’ says a contractor, pausing for a fag break opposite Bristol’s new M Shed museum, the retrofit of a 1950s-built transit shed by LAB Architecture Studio. Cirque Bijou is rehearsing the building’s celebratory opening show - a folkloric staging of mythical local giants Goram and Vincent vying for the attention of the fair Avona, with choreographed dockers, cranes, a giant metal M and a singing showgirl aboard a fire-fighting boat called the Pyronaught.

If the contractor’s appraisal has an appealing directness, over the past seven years, the story of M Shed has been less direct, following a complicated narrative that clouds any clear overview. Controversial through planning, with tight financial and physical constraints and a complete U-turn in architectural strategy from ‘transformation’ to refurbishment, it would be easy to conclude that getting anything built against these odds is an achievement in itself.

But, forgetting the hazy past for a moment, in its first weeks of being open to the public, M Shed has created a real buzz and stands testament to the close public consultation processes involved in its conception, which broke the mould of many other recent museum projects, where the container has often seemed more important than its contents. Here the inverse is the case, with the exhibits of M Shed focused on the city’s past present and future.

Through its occupation of one of Bristol’s most popular dockside buildings, M Shed also brings an old building back to life, much in the tradition of creative re-use established so successfully by neighbouring institutions such as the Arnolfini, Watershed and Architecture Centre, which led the way in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Extending this legacy, M Shed goes further, to provide new vantage points from its public foyers, galleries and roof terrace and a much-needed café on the city’s under-served south bank. However, due to that all important U-turn, its architecture makes less progress, and demonstrates an unfortunate association with a group of post-Millennium projects, such as Colston Hall and Cabot Circus, which, while welcome additions to the life of the city, are of decidedly questionable architectural quality.

Why has this happened? Bristol is not short of creative thinking, as is repeatedly demonstrated in the galleries of this ‘people’s museum’, with exhibits by home-grown talents including Aardman Animations, Banksy, Massive Attack, Martin Parr, Richard Long and many more lesser-known creatives. The city’s creativity permeates the business world too. In recognition of its engineering, aviation, broadcasting and digital media industries, Bristol was awarded Creative Capital status in 2008, but little mention was made of the city’s architects, and it could be said that the status was accorded in spite of, rather than because of, its contribution to contemporary architecture.

In terms of single buildings, during the 30-plus years I have lived in the city, Bristol’s architectural legacy has been tarnished by missed opportunities and mistakes, including the shelving of Stefan and Günter Behnisch’s Performing Arts Centre, the rough treatment of the former Bristol and West Tower, the generic and less sociable remodelling of David Chipperfield’s much-loved Arnolfini café and, regrettably for those who admire his work, the Crest Nicolson housing by Edward Cullinan Architects. All are within sight of M Shed and share its floating harbour context. Here, despite huge efforts made to maintain the 200-year-old dock and re-establish it as the city’s core asset, there is a visible struggle as planners seek to strike a balance between the preservation of its distinctive maritime character and the realisation of a ‘world-class’ harbourside. It is in this context that M Shed has to be judged.

Initially, ambitions for the museum were high, with the city running an international design competition in 2004. As recalled by LAB Architecture Studio associate director David Racz, the council called for a design that would ‘transform the humble 1950s transit shed into a landmark building’ and, having made its decision, the jury must have thought it had found the ideal landmark team. The practice had just completed its keynote project, Federation Square in Melbourne, and the council no doubt believed that Bristol would welcome a similarly spirited injection of pizzazz on the harbourside, resonant with the spirit of Behnisch’s vision, abandoned in 1998. The reality, however, was very different and it soon became clear that the selection of this architect was problematic, above and beyond the predictable envy of local firms.

Firstly, it attracted huge criticism in the local press, with the Evening Post whipping up a storm of opposition by putting images of Federation Square, a complex tangle of fractal geometries, on its front page and asking whether readers wanted this for Bristol. Then came that U-turn. The already cautious council bowed to pressure and was persuaded to reconsider its strategy for a landmark building and to change the brief into what is effectively a full-blown conservation refurb.

Council leader Barbara Janke recalled this decision in her opening speech, describing how the council had listened to the people of Bristol before ‘going back to the drawing board’.

And why not? This is what you would hope for a museum for the people. The problem, however, lay in the fact that no mention was made about how this decision related to the selection of LAB. Some of the more territorial local firms must have hoped for a competition re-match, but, despite the hostility, LAB stayed committed to the job and, six years on, Racz remains gracious, optimistic and philosophical about the compromises and decisions that were made, while acknowledging some concern about what the critics might say.

‘The council’s decisions were completely understandable,’ he states, standing on the roof terrace and taking in an altogether new public view of the city. ‘There were many conflicting stakeholder views. On the one hand, we had a group calling for the preservation of the city’s last remaining transit shed, who wanted us to preserve its robust character. On the other hand, we had a museum and Heritage Lottery Fund brief that demanded a series of state-of-the-art exhibition halls that were hermetically sealed and lit to 200 lux.’

Working with services and structural engineers Atelier 10 and Arup to recondition the spaces, while saving as much of the existing fabric as possible, most of LAB’s well-executed re-use efforts remain unseen in the accomplishment of the brief.

As far as LAB’s trademark architectural expression is concerned, this is now limited to the articulation of two new staircases and some tapering urinals in the gents. Both stairs work well (as do the urinals), with the principal three-storey stair providing what Racz calls ‘privileged views’ that flip your orientation from north to south and onto intermediate landings as it doubles back on itself within the central triple-height void. Above this, LAB added an elegant attic storey and roof terrace and, to either side, stripped out and prepared three large exhibition halls.

While the halls were subsequently installed with three excellent thematic exhibitions about Bristol’s people, places and life by Event Communications, the potentially impressive rooftop reception space, specified by The Bush Consultancy, of Bristol, has clumsy LAB-esque lighting troughs and fake timber lino. This outcome encapsulates M Shed’s architectural story, and has a certain resonance with the building’s nickname, ‘Mashed’.

As such, M Shed is not the contemporary landmark originally envisaged, which LAB might well have produced, given the chance. Neither is it the sort of characterful restoration that plan B sought to achieve. Instead, it is indeed a rather mashed-up and schizophrenic place that, regardless of the fine views it opens up, fails to maintain any architectural coherence inside and out.

The architecture of M Shed compares unfavourably with other successes nearby, such as Alec French’s fine SS Great Britain Museum, which manages to preserve the essence of the former sheds and dry dock while providing a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled, Gulbenkian Prize-winning museum.

That said, M Shed is about a city and its people, not just one building. Australian Gold Medalist Richard Leplastrier shared his view with a group of local architects shortly before the opening, as he pointed down from the M Shed rooftop in frustration and said: ‘It’s the harbour; its boats and its users. This is where the real museum exists. Out there. Not in here.’

And, ultimately, it will be how the museum choreographs this relationship that will be critical in attracting our sceptical, smoking contractor into a more active engagement.

Rob Gregory is senior editor of The Architectural Review

Credits

Start on site January 2008
Contract duration Base build 132 weeks; fit out 32 weeks
Gross internal floor area 5,535m2
Procurement NEC Option B (priced contract with bill of quantities) plus Option X12 (contractor/client partnering agreement)
Total cost £26.9m
Base build £16.7m
Exhibition + fitout + client costs £10.2m
Cost per m2 £4,850
Client Bristol City Council
Architect LAB
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant Atelier Ten
Quantity surveyor Davis Langdon
Lighting design Full-on
Catering design King Design Consultancy
Access consultants Andrew Walker/ Ann Sawyer
Acoustic consultant Acoustic Consultants
Fire and facade engineering Arup
Project Manager Focus Consultants
Exhibition design and fit-out Event Communications
Main contractor BAM (Western)
CDM co-ordinator Davis Langdon
Approved building inspector Bristol City Council

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