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The Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno, by Ellis Williams Architects

‘Simplicity, sophistication, and one or two surprises’, says Felix Mara. Photography by Hélène Binet.

It was always possible that the project to expand the Mostyn gallery in Llandudno, which opened its doors in May, would involve an element of surprise, as it’s both the home of Wales’ principal contemporary art gallery and a Grade II-listed building. The architect of the expansion, Ellis Williams Architects, knew that although a contemporary interior was a given, the planners wouldn’t look kindly on proposals that tampered with the principal facade of George Alfred Humphreys’ 1901 ‘masterpiece’.

In reality, his facade is a hotchpotch of northern renaissance and Edwardian baroque motifs, crowned with a dunce’s cap spire. Its only real interest lies in the fact that Humphreys designed half the facades in the street, and many more elsewhere in Llandudno, threading brick and terracotta through the town’s seaside stucco fabric.

Critic Nikolaus Pevsner’s verdict is enough to dull the soul of many architects working in what he describes as Wales’ pre-eminent planned town: ‘Llandudno stands as a model of Victorian and Edwardian eclecticism and its main task is now to preserve itself.’ Llandudno is houseproud and, compared to many British seaside towns, it has its fair share of unfaded grandeur, with a stylish pier and gleaming stucco.

There’s something cosmopolitan about it, like the Amalfi coast with non-conformist chapels, a Coptic church and a synagogue. Nevertheless, Mostyn’s director, Martin Barlow, observes, ‘It’s rather odd that we’re in Llandudno.’ A grittier setting in a south Wales town, such as Cardiff, Swansea or Newport would be a more typical location for this type of venture.

Almost by chance, Mostyn arrived in north Wales, which is rural, liberal and non-conformist, built at the behest of the philanthropist Lady Augusta Mostyn who, on her husband’s death, became head of the family that had helped to initiate and guide Llandudno’s development as a seaside resort. She commissioned Humphreys, the Mostyn estate’s architect, to design the Oriel Mostyn (Oriel means gallery in Welsh) as the world’s first gallery for women artists, because they were excluded from the regional gallery.

It soon fell into decline, but was reincarnated in 1979 as part of an Arts Council campaign to promote art in the regions. It was hugely successful and gained a reputation for promoting Welsh artists and exhibiting international work, but its facilities let it down and Ellis Williams was commissioned to design an expanded gallery.

Mostyn chose Ellis Williams on the strength of its design for the Baltic Arts Centre, which opened in Gateshead in 2002, and because it was confident that the practice would engage in dialogue. In a practice monograph, the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban observes that, ‘Museum people and artists always say that they don’t need architects. They prefer industrial spaces… They say that architects design spaces more for themselves than for art.’ Perhaps Mostyn had a similar concern: this may explain the sculptor Lois Williams’ role as consultant artist.

She recommended that the gallery have ‘simplicity, subtlety and sophistication – plus one or two surprises.’ The gallery holds temporary exhibitions of Welsh and international artists’ work. It also seeks to encourage local artists, and the renovation aimed to address local concerns that it was elitist, without compromising the quality of the exhibits. Ellis Williams created four new galleries, a café, a shop, storage, workspaces, education spaces and a circulation core linking the ground and first floors. The upper levels are occupied by offices and flats.

Lois Williams’ vision prompted the decision to transform the existing spire into a beacon by cladding it with 128 individually sponsored gold-anodised tiles. But a greater surprise lies at the Mostyn’s core, where visitors, having passed through the approachable environment of the shop, encounter a massive in situ concrete gorge known as the ‘Tube’, bridged by a thrusting staircase and an internal pergola.

Although this staircase might have been more effective if it had been articulated in a contrasting material, it adds to the gravitas of the Tube, which is in sharp contrast to Humphreys’ frivolous facade, acting as a threshold to the gallery spaces and providing an element of permanence, in distinction to the transient world of the temporary galleries with their shifting overhead daylight levels. The Tube is described in a poem that Mostyn commissioned to mark the gallery’s opening from Gillian Clarke.

There were few debates about the exhibition spaces. The three larger oriels have roof lights. Of these, oriels one and two figure in the listing and keep their original features, whereas oriel three – once part of Humphreys’ post office – has a new saw-toothed roof. They have brilliant white walls and the floors are oak, in contrast to the burnished concrete of the Tube – a strong client preference. Machined slots in the oak supply displacement air, as at Baltic. Some walls in the smaller oriels are painted black.

The gallery on the first floor will mainly be used for video displays. Lois Williams felt it was vital that there were galleries on both levels, as to contain them all on one level could lead to ghettoisation of the space. But the key space at this level is the café, which has views of Vaughan Street and overlooks the Tube and galleries beyond. There’s a solitary black cruciform column and an amazing light feature in a glazed ceiling recess, designed by Gavin Fraser of Foto-Ma. It uses cold cathode tubes to generate a range of colours.

A walkway connecting the café to the first-floor open-plan office space would have been convenient for staff, but Mostyn abandoned this proposal as it would have passed through oriel three at high level, compromising its quality as a gallery. The office space is naturally lit with a large east window, and this portion of the gallery also contains plant and storage areas – vital to the functioning of a temporary gallery. It has been transformed beyond recognition with a striking aesthetic: with black-painted concrete, clusters of horizontal windows, a fire-rated curtain wall and gold-anodised rainscreen cladding riveted to top hat sections, supported by structural insulated panels. This is on a back street and is a busy delivery zone, so visitors may have limited opportunities to use it, although it’s visible from the adjacent retail park, and there are plans to develop this street with artists’ accommodation.

In the case of the Vaughan Street elevation, it’s unfortunate that Ellis Williams failed to persuade the planners to be more indulgent. Following a tentative secondary planning application they endorsed the gold spire but not the proposal to replace the Victorian canopy with a more contemporary entry. But this absence of such an entrance facade sets up the surprises within, and Mostyn’s function to act as a focus for contemporary art networks is so strongly boosted by online resources that it can work around this omission. The project team should be congratulated for achieving such high architectural standards without compromising this function, and for negotiating potential areas of risk such as tricky ground conditions, party walls and the planning system. To do this within the framework of a traditional contract, and without paying a silly price required dedication and nous.

The Tube

The ‘Tube’ acts as a threshold space between the entrance and the gallery spaces beyond. It also connects the building’s spaces vertically: we conceived of it as a fulcrum around which people would circulate.

This reinforced concrete element, cast in situ, works partly in conjunction with new structural steelwork but is not itself a primary structural element.

The uninterrupted timber board-marked finish uses 100mm sand-blasted boards to give a consistent defined texture, while the floor, again in in-situ concrete, has a smooth hand-trowelled finish.

Triangular concrete ceiling fins connecting the two main walls were designed to create directional daylight, illuminating the concrete without glare. The aluminium glazing system spanning over the fins utilises very large glass panels.

A primary stair formed in the same board-marked in situ concrete bridges the space, connecting the ground with an upper floor gallery and café. The positioning of this kinked form was driven by the location of these spaces.

Locally sourced materials were used for the prescribed mix, achieving the desired lightness without the need for artificial additives, and also gave a very high strength level.

The glass balustrade at the café’s edge, overlooking the Tube, is a single 19mm toughened sheet, cantilevered from a stainless steel clamping arrangement and bolted to the inside of the concrete, with all fixings hidden beneath the floor finish.

The engineered oak floor of the café continues down the stair with inset stainless steel nosings and a continuous oak handrail on both sides.

Mark Anstey, project architect, Ellis Williams Architects

Specification notes

Mechanical services – JRS Mechanical Services

Electrical services – Falconer Electricals

Concrete works – RL Davies & Son

Steelwork – Kendley

Lift – Kone

Windows & rooflights – Anglezarke

Membrane roof – Bauder

Roofing subcontractor – K Pendlebury & Sons

Slate roof – A.Gallagher & Son Roofing

Internal doors – SDM Joinery

Balustrades – SDM Joinery

External doors – Bolton Gate

Oak floor – Walkers of Stokesley

Flooring subcontractor – Ross Hughes Flooring

Ironmongery supplier – Williams Ironmongery

Acoustic panels – CMS Acoustics

Piling – Branlow Piling

Propping and underpinning – Abbey Pynford

Shop fitout – Shop Services

Kitchen fitout – C&C Catering Equipment

SIPs and cladding subcontractors – SIP Build

Aluminium cladding manufacturer – Sotech Optima

Anodisers – Heywood Metal Finishers

Specialist steelwork – David Williams

Drylining subcontractors – P&T Ceilings

WC cubicles and panelling – Thrislington Cubicles

Timber treatment and damp-proof course – Peter Cox

Concrete surface specialist – White+Reid

Furniture supplier – Coexistence

Credits

Start on site date – July 2007

Gross internal floor area – 2,000m²

Contract Demolition – JCT Minor Works 2005; main works – JCT 2005 with quantities

Total cost – £5.1 million

Cost per m2 – £1,900

Client – Mostyn

Architect – Ellis Williams Architects

Structural engineer – Buro Happold  

Quantity surveyor – Boyden & Company

Project management – Chandler KBS

Main contractor – RL Davies & Son

Building inspector – HCD Group

Specialist lighting – Foto-Ma

Concrete – David Bennett Associates

Consultant artist – Lois Williams

Annual CO2 emissions – 45.32kg/m²

Working Detail

Mostyn Gallery

Ellis Williams Architects

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