As Gail Thorne ofWarrington's Pyramid Art Centre points out, competition for the leisure pound is fierce.Warrington aspires to be a major player in the North West, competing for attention with the likes of Salford's Lowry. Choice of performance and exhibition programmes is crucial, of course, but for the Centre the choice of building was critical, too. Its starting point was the potential to convert the Victorian courthouse, unoccupied for 20 years, except latterly by a few pigeons.
This article could have been titled architecture as art, to make the point that the refurbished and enlarged building by Studio Baad is very much part of Warrington's arts proposition. It is a forthright, challenging architectural statement itself; a building that leads you to expect it will contain something a bit unpredictable, a bit edgy.
The client's approach to selecting an architect reflected its wish to step outside the conventional. The initial competition, among 12 practices, was for each of them to create an A1 'design ethos board' expressing their values and working methods and hinting at how the design would be approached, presented anonymously. Only then was a shortlist of two selected. Both then presented their work to the borough council and the RIBA competition assessors, after which the client's team visited recent jobs and the practices' offices. The client was looking for a partner as well as a designer.
Studio Baad won the job at Christmas 1996. The design was developed and a business case was put forward for funding from the Arts Council Lottery Board. The Board promised a decision would be made within three months but took a year to make up its mind, saying yes and awarding £2.4m. After a round of tender cost reductions the job started on site in November 1999, coming to a halt a year later when the contractor went into receivership. A new contractor was on site by May 2001, leading to an official opening in November last year.
The year waiting for Lottery funding was not all lost time. Studio Baad was asked to look at the next building along Palmyra Square, Centresport, only separated from the courthouse by a narrow service road to parking at the rear. Centresport is a similar Victorian building, which you would think was designed as a drill hall - with two storeys of offices at the front and a similar height single volume behind - but it was, in fact, built for recreational use. Studio Baad hatched a plan to refurbish the building simply, with the potential also for civic and rehearsal uses - the floor is not strong enough to support raked seating. The client liked the plan and financed the refurbishment itself.
In this interregnum year Studio Baad also put forward several ideas for art in public spaces around the town. One is now realised, and the design for the refurbishment of Palmyra Square, a public garden, has begun on a small scale.
A key move by Studio Baad in the Pyramid project design was to focus on its external presence as much as its interior.
The service roadway between the courthouse and Centresport was closed and acquired for the project. A new full-height box, with fully-glazed ends and concave roof, was set in this gap. It connects the two buildings, providing a reception and marking the entrances on the Palmyra Square frontage and via the car park at the rear (the car park is now accessible from the side road). At the front, the box rises to a prow with a full-height X-frame behind the glazing. At the rear, the plane of the glazed entrance strip extends across the back of the courthouse, originally also glass, now costcut to translucent Kalwall. Aesthetically this works, but the client was concerned to make the Pyramid feel as open as possible, as there is still some feeling in the community that 'the arts are not for us'. To help, the new glazed box is also designed as a public through-route between streets at the front and back, hoping to invite in passers-by.
The new rear walling arises because of the circulation complexities characteristic of courthouses. It was necessary to form new circulation routes as walkways outside the original back of the building, carried on a 15m virendeel steel truss. The translucent walling encloses this route. The original masonry rear wall is clad in profiled metal - also used elsewhere in the building. This keeps the sense of the new here, as well as saving on brickwork restoration.
While the exteriors of the new interventions are distinctly modern, they are relatively polite compared with the rawer feel of the new interior spaces. The flank wall of Centresport is clad in profiled metal.
Opposite, a new open staircase has been created, opening up the side of the courthouse and creating one entrance/circulation volume. The steel-framed stairs with folded-plate open steel treads have balustrades and screening in mill-finish steel grid, deep enough to change in transparency as the viewing angle changes.
Building surfaces are left exposed. In places the original cut-back masonry at new openings is exposed as a raw edge, not squared-off. It's gritty.
With a limited budget it was inevitable that many of the original spaces in the five levels of accommodation (including basement and mezzanine) would receive little more than redecoration. Mostly they are ordinary looking, although the courtrooms have more character (the basement restaurant franchise is fitted out by others).
However, Philip Bintliff of Studio Baad lives in hope. The original glass flooring to the new circulation walkways has been lost, substituted by Vyroc board, but he detailed these boards like glass panels in the hope that one day glass can be installed.
There is one more dramatic intervention, though. Studio Baad has hollowed out a performance space (for 150 when seated).
Between the two courts, along their length, ran a lightwell, several metres wide. This has been roofed-in with ETFE to create another cuboid, like the entrance box but on a somewhat smaller scale, and darker. Goalpost steel frames measuring 9m wide have been inserted into the loadbearing walls of the two large rooms beneath the courts, opening them onto the lightwell to create one through space. One room can hold bleacher seating. The goalpost frame to the larger of the two rooms creates a proscenium arch.
This room acts as both the stage and adjacent backstage area. Ideally, the floor-to-ceiling heights and the arches would be higher, but it works.And its floor is at ground level for ease of access. Above the goalpost openings within the lightwell are vertically-sliding metal doors that can close off either room.
This new combined volume is essentially a flexible space, and flexibility is the watchword generally. There is very little dedicated single-use space. Not only will future exhibition, performance and craft uses develop in unpredictable directions as staff explore the building's potential, but this also allows the Pyramid to tap all possible sources of income. So it is open to bookings for rehearsals, local community groups, meetings and seminars - whatever uses keep the cash flowing.
But the arts mission is not lost. Indeed, unusually, the Pyramid employs five outreach staff to take the arts to the community, especially schools - an investment in developing its arts agenda.
In the bigger picture, the Pyramid is being presented as part of Warrington's arts quarter, including the long-existing Parr Hall - a larger civic hall/performance space - its museum and art gallery, and the central library. All these others sit quietly behind their original facades. It is only the Pyramid that has taken the important step of proclaiming its presence on the street and responding to a new agenda within.
ORIGINAL TENDER DATE May 1999
ORIGINAL START ON SITE DATE November 2000
CONTRACT DURATION 76 weeks (original plus completion contract)
GROSS INTERNAL FLOOR AREA 2620m 2
CONTRACT JCT 1980 Standard Form with Quantities, including Contractor Design Supplement
TOTAL COST £2,869,179 (Based on tender.Actual costs higher due to determination of original contract)
CLIENT Warrington Borough Council
ARCHITECT Studio Baad Architects: Andy Allen, Ann Morris, Philip Bintliff, Ray Philips
QUANTITY SURVEYOR Nigel Rose and Partners
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners
SERVICES ENGINEER Meica Services
THEATRE CONSULTANT Technical Planning International
ACCESS CONSULTANT Warrington Borough Council
ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT Lee Cunningham and Partners
HISTORIC BUILDING SURVEYOR Ryder and Dutton
DRAINAGE CONSULTANT Alan Johnson and Partners
COMPLETION CONTRACTOR Bluestone
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Translucent cladding Kalwall, Stoakes Systems; sinusoidal cladding and Holorib floors Corus; steelwork Reynolds & Litchfield; stairs and balustrading Robinson Fabrications; curtain walling and internal glazed panels A&CT (York); wall and floor cladding Euroform Products; ironmongery Allgoods; lighting Iguzzini Malham Lighting; sanitaryware Armitage Shanks; roof membrane Trocal; ETFE rooflight Vector Special Projects; vertical lift doors Active Doors; acoustic panels Soundcheck; selflevelling screed Flowcrete
Warrington Borough Council www. pyramid. org. uk
Studio Baad Architects www. studiobaad. com
Nigel Rose and Partners www. nigelrose. com
Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners www. dewmac. com
Meica Services www. meica. co. uk
Technical Planning International www. theatreplan. net
Lee Cunningham and Partners www. lcpacoustics. co. uk
Ryder and Dutton www. ryder-dutton. co. uk
Bluestone www. bluestone. plc. uk