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A unifying art

Evans Vettori's refurbishment of the School of Art and Design at Nottingham Trent University brings together buildings from the 1860s and 1950s, and the school's different disciplines

How do you pull a Victorian art school into the IT-driven twenty-first century without losing its character or over-running a tight university budget? This was the challenge faced by Evans Vettori when the young Derbyshire practice was commissioned to refurbish the School of Art and Design at Nottingham Trent University.

The school is descended from the School of Art established in Nottingham in the 1840s as part of a national drive to bring art education to the working classes and thereby revitalise British manufacturing design. It is still based in the Waverley Building, designed by Frederick Bakewell and opened in 1865.

Other buildings were added to the site during the next 150 years, most notably a 1950 brickwork teaching block to the north of the main building.The school now houses the university departments of interior architecture and design, decorative arts, theatre design, television production design and furniture and product design.

The client's chief requirements were an exhibition space, disabled access and an improved working environment for students and staff. Robert Evans worked on the wider brief in consultation with the various departments. It included the installation of IT cabling throughout, as well as mechanical ventilation for certain areas.His proposal of a return to a more open studio arrangement to encourage cross-fertilisation between departments, in keeping with the idealistic origins of the school, was enthusiastically embraced by the client.

At first glance, the new-build element of Evans Vettori's scheme is almost invisible - a transparent full-height linking core, set back in the gap between the 1860s and 1950s buildings but accomplishing many of the requirements of the brief : a new student entrance, a lift, a new stair, landing links between the different floor levels in the two buildings and complete disabled access. Sensitive detailing achieves a comfortable bond between the two buildings.The High-Tech glass screen on the facade is mitred so that it tucks against the capital of an adjacent 1860s column, carved with Giotto's portrait.The stainless steel bracing to the screen is tied back to square hollow sections supported on chunky modern precast concrete corbels.

Landings are a mere 100mm thick, 'almost like ship construction', made up of a tray of thick steel ribs, concrete and Granwood flooring (highly durable blocks made of cement, sawdust and linseed oil which were used on floors in the 1950s block). The entrance level flooring is in limestone. Balustrading also copies the 1950s flat sections but with a timber - rather than aluminium - handrail. The budget would not stretch to a scenic lift, instead a window in the car wall and a glazed slot down outer side of the shaft give users a glimpse of the romantic rural cemetery across the road.

Evans Vettori has made some radical changes to the buildings. By removing a two-storey storage block, a formerly dead area to the rear has been glazed over to create a socialising student atrium.Evans regards the large side wall on the south side of the atrium as 'a blank canvas waiting for something to happen'.He is acutely aware of the kind of spaces artists prefer: 'They don't like contrived visuals, but they don't like dead white boxes either.' Hence the restrained use of colour. Apart from graded blues to colour-code the new link (light sky-blue at the top, dark below) and the occasional orange wall on the north-south axis, he has opted for bare render or white plaster.

In the Waverley Building, scattered WCs were repositioned at the rear of the new link, making space for seminar rooms.One of the two staircases in the main stairwell was removed to enlarge the lobby at the base of the void where people tend to gather during theatre performances, and to bring the natural light from a new octagonal roof lantern further down into the building.

Originally the two top floors of the Waverley Building formed one enormous studio and exhibition hall illuminated by a pitched glass roof.The arched windows on the front elevation were blanked out and only opened up when the mezzanine was introduced in 1950. Inevitably, much of the original splendour of the top floor was lost, but it is still an impressive space.

Timber beams and stone corbels have been sand-blasted to remove layers of paint and permanent partitions taken down to foster greater communication. IT connections have been fitted in all studios so that theoretically they are interchangeable.

For the main requirement of the brief - an exhibition area - Evans Vettori chose the most obvious space: the entrance to the Waverley Building, at the heart of the school.This was formerly dominated by a central corridor with offices on either side. By pushing the office accommodation back towards the rear of the building and eliminating the corridor, Evans Vettori has produced the desired exhibition hall across the front, and introduced a ceremonial entrance route by bringing forward the staircase leading to the main stair lobby in the centre of the building.A path of Hopton Wood limestone paving slabs leads from the entrance to the new staircase, dividing the hall into two generous oak-floored areas.The walls have been drylined in plasterboard backed with plywood to give a practical hanging surface for artwork. In the northern half of the hall, a single slender cast-iron column appears to be doing duty as sole representative of the Victorian industrial age; while projecting from the wall behind it is a very new, all-glass bay window to the internal meeting room behind: a stark juxtaposition of old and new.

Two rows of arches replace the removed office partitions and define the approach from entrance to stairs. They look strangely Renaissance and delicate in this robust Victorian setting.They are also somewhat out of keeping with the futuristic chandeliers, custom-made by Box Products, mounted between them.Maybe that iron column could have been invoked instead of a whole new vocabulary.One other quibble: the double doors at the top of the new stairway form a mundane termination to the ceremonial route.But ceiling height and budget restrictions are undoubtedly to blame.

The scheme involved much work that has not been touched upon, including specialist repairs to external stonework, new lighting, installation of cable ducting to offices, new air-handling plant and suspended ceilings to conceal services.Complete refurbishment of the 1950s block included new doors, patching the Granwood floors, and lino covering for concrete floors.Work in the Waverley Building also involved transforming the Victorian conservatory into a conference room.

Evans Vettori's aim throughout was to spend the money where it would show and to make the school a more comfortable working environment for students and staff. This aim has been achieved on a tight budget of £1.4 million and has set a standard for future refurbishments at the university.

CREDITS

CLIENT Nottingham Trent University

ARCHITECT Evans Vettori: Robert Evans, John Cater, Colin Cobb, Chris Mee, Mariangela Vettori

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Abatech International

SERVICE ENGINEER Nottingham Trent University

QUANTITY SURVEYOR Appleyard & Trent

PLANNING SUPERVISOR John Goad Associates

MAIN CONTRACTOR Bodill Construction

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS glazing Solaglas; lift Morris Vermaport; electrical Electract; mechanical Skerritt; asphalt Nottingham Rock Asphalt; limestone Hopton Wood; sandstone Natural Stone; doors Leaderflush; ironmongery Bennett; paint Jotun; linoleum Forbo-Nairn; ceilings supplier Armstrong; curved ceiling USA; WC Armitage Venesta; damp proofing Sovereign; windows Crittall; lighting Ridi; special light fittings Box Products; flooring Granwood Flooring

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