When the competition to transform the old Baltic Flour Mill was held in 1994, the only way to get to the site was by a particularly unpleasant walk along the Gateshead bankside. Now there are two options: to walk across the Wilkinson Eyre Millennium Bridge from the Newcastle side, or to stroll along the same Gateshead bankside route as before, but since prettified for the Queen's visit last year. If you can get parked, I recommend the latter, as it is a the best way to get the full impression of the scale of the building as you round the high-banked corner from the Gateshead Quays information centre and past Foster's Music Centre building site. Getting parked, though, is something that has not been dealt with.
Eight years since the competition, Dominic Williams of architect Ellis Williams has finally realised his dream. The £46 million project is now complete, not exactly on time, but still impressive.
For the past 12 months since the completion of the Millennium Bridge, Sunday promenaders have destroyed the credibility of one of Newcastle's trendiest bars, Panter Hudspith Architects' Pitcher and Piano, which is situated directly across from the Baltic site. T-shirted, cocktail-shaking, Geordie bartenders have had to serve coffees and teas to thousands of pensioners who, after walking across the bridge, realised that there was nothing there and walked back for a quick drink before going home for a nap.
Now, the Baltic's ground floor cafeteria looks set to mop up the trade.
This is the first area that you encounter; its chairs, as well as its random slate walls, spilling out over the grand paved public arena, currently used by skateboarders but easily requisitioned for outdoor performances. The paving textures and the changing colours of the inset lighting, designed by the local authority, are evidence of the care and attention that has gone into this external approach route. And while comparisons are being made between Tate Modern and the Baltic, it is this attention to detail and the quality of finishing that sets the Baltic apart.
The entrance area is a glass and curved aluminium roof extension, known as the Riverside building, which has been kept very low in order not to detract from the main structure. The visitor is drawn in between huge industrial Corten steel wings (which double as chair stores) across a rough slate floor and past the cafe and small reading room. Here the low ceiling suddenly curves upwards to reveal a fully glazed ceiling and dramatic views up the west elevation wall to the underside of the overhanging viewing box, way up on the fifth floor.
After the full-width processional stairs (bypassed by a stylish disabled lift), visitors can carry straight on into the main building or access the ground floor restaurant. This is tucked away above the entrance area with views into it and across the river.Once again, both the glass ceiling and walls enhance the sense of space. Notwithstanding my compliments about the detailing, a patchwork of aluminium panels has been clumsily rivetted around the openings. The ceiling panels, too, seem flimsy.
The external red cedar balcony dips down to where the Riverside building meets the main building - something of a dead space - which has been uplifted by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa's work, entitled 'Blake in Gateshead', a permanent light installation with its beam shining 2km into the sky.
From the Riverside entrance, the visitor has to walk around the bank of glass lifts, thus encouraging people into the main building. British artist Alec Finlay, choreographer of the comical Labanotation, Chad McCail, Los Carpinteros and Eva Grubinge will be artists in residence. They will occupy studios on the ground floor. This is not, therefore, a particularly public area. Most public visits will start on the fouth floor art space, 25m above ground floor level.
The entire floor plan of the original building had comprised a honeycomb of flour silos - concrete boxes rising the full height of the building. Most have been stripped out but some have been retained to maintain authenticity and structural stability as well as to house full height services, stairwells and the biggest delivery lift in Europe.
It is a long way to the top and there are no escalators, which might be a problem if visitor numbers are high, or there is a technical fault.
Pressed metal stairs with perforated metal balustrading situated in the corners have a basic industrial aesthetic. The view up the quarter-turn stairwell, disappearing into the distance, is like a still from a Hitchcock movie.
The first floor houses a 60-seat film/ video/lecture room and a blackout artspace, known as the Cube, which has facilities for top, side or even floor projection. The main floor area is given over to a 300-seat theatre extending to the gable end, which will provide space for live performances. To shut off unwanted daylight, a 19m x 8m Teflon coated 'sail', fixed on rails to the outside of the east elevation, will move across to cover the full height windows on several floors. Internally, high-level cut-out windows look down on the space from the circulation areas above.
After seeing the gutted building fabric in 1999, installed with Anish Kapoor's marvellous 'Tarantara', it is strange now to see how small the internal dimensions are. Only 50m x 20m, it is possible to see through the windows from the opposite side of the building.
Because of the visible riverside landmarks it is easy to orientate yourself and feel that the building is truly part of the landscape.
The next floor up is an impressive doubleheight artspace, with an island mezzanine office 'bringing the administration function into the heart of the building'. This is where the library and archives are stored. The office is accessed by a harsh sculptural Corten spiral stair set into the sea of pine flooring. Baltic director Sune Nordgren does not allow anyone to drink coffee at their desk, so they must descend the spiral stair and drink in the more fraternal sitting-out space with views through the east elevation glazing.
The Baltic office wants the gallery known as a working environment where young artists can come to use its extensive facilities.
'It is about creation, rather than display, ' says Sarah Hudspeth (no relation) of the Baltic office, and this is where the public will first encounter staff. It is only then that you realise that nobody has asked for a ticket, nor provided any 'information desk' services.
The signage, designed by Julian Opie, will have a lot of work to do.
The third and fourth floors are given over to full-sized art gallery spaces of about 750m 2each. T-shaped remnants of the original silo corners remain to form a cloister-like perimeter, which allows the unity of the space to be subtly broken up. An open roof terrace offers fantastic views over the river, spoiled only by the health and safety requirement that it should be surrounded by 2m-high glazing. From here, visitors can touch the 3m-high ceramic lettering and see the quality of brickwork repairs.
However, the kittihawks, which, as a protected species were an essential part of the original brief and one of the reasons why much of the structure had to be retained, have been coaxed to move to specially built coops further down the river.
The topmost art space has a real loft/warehouse feel to it, with sloping rooflights and high walls. A separate staircase leads to the viewing box offering unbeatable views over all the bridges up the Tyne and glimpses of the Corten turrets, which had looked like columns of brickwork from the ground.
Above, the rooftop restaurant seats 90 people. Another impressive space; but I was privileged to go to the ladies WC, which was even better. Cubicles are tucked away against the return wall with freestanding aluminium washbasins columns in front of full-height glazing.
Throughout the building, the aesthetic is pristine and simple. The commissioned furniture is by Professor Ake Axelsson from Sweden, comprising modular units of pine, aluminium, steel and glass; the burnt steel and primary colours introducing a sharpness to the impartial surroundings. Natural materials are used where possible and painted surfaces are generally white so that the building maintains its neutrality and allows the art work to speak for itself.
However, the initial phase of art work has been commissioned 'to best show off the building' - a curious inversion in the objective of a gallery.
Given that the National Lottery has pledged £1.5 million a year for five years, its future looks assured. Nordgren has a breathing space to establish the centre as a national institution, although initial business plans suggest that the majority of the clientele will come from a 45-minute radius. Whether it can make its mark as a gallery rather than as a studio space - or a stopping off point for coffee-starved pensioners - is something we will have to wait and see.
Building services strategies
Patrick Bellew, Atelier Ten
When the Baltic competition was won in 1994 with Dominic Williams and Atelier One, our office - Atelier Ten - was just four years old. We had a client that was intent upon the success of the project and was prepared to fund the work necessary to produce a thorough scheme design in support of the application for Arts Lottery funding.
The team at the council was interested in innovation which would either enhance the visitor experience or contribute to reduced operating costs and CO 2emissions. They were particularly supportive in the exploration of 'sustainable'energy strategies, quite unusual in our experience at the time. One of the conditions of the Lottery grant was the early appointment of a museum director and, while this delayed the design process, the successful appointee, Sune Nordgren, was Swedish and entirely comfortable with the concepts of energy conservation and such mysteries as displacement conditioning in galleries.
The competition scheme explored the relationship between the structure and services as the early sectional models illustrate.The inserted supporting structure sits 2.5m inside the line of the original walls and both props the facades and provides the support for the long spans across the main gallery spaces.The short propping span is a shallower structure than the main span, so producing a logical route for the horizontal distribution of primary services.
All galleries are air conditioned, the middle gallery having a closecontrol system to regulate temperature and humidity so that even the most demanding exhibitions can be staged.The main air supply to the galleries is through linear displacement floor diffusers; the ductwork that serves them from below was cast into the post-tensioned concrete support beams. Displacement systems for galleries were a fairly radical notion in 1994 although they are now quite common, with Tate Modern being a particularly successful example. They offer the potential for excellent gallery conditions - for both art and people - with much lower operating costs than with overhead systems.
Four corner towers clad in Corten steel contain the main ventilation plant rooms and vertical distribution drops through the cores to serve all floors.All the fresh air ventilation plant systems are equipped with air-to-air heat recovery.
Power and digital/analogue data distribution to the galleries is also routed through the floor, parallel to the air slots, so there is complete flexibility for exhibition installations without having to lift the floors.
The main plant is located in a separate building at the eastern end of the gallery. It houses a large combined heat and power unit, boilers, chillers, tanks and distribution equipment. (These plant were to have been located in an underground tunnel behind the quay wall that originally linked the Baltic to the surrounding grain and flour processing buildings.The area was completely flooded and it was not pumped out until Lottery funding was achieved. Once drained, the space was found to be completely filled with rubble and, as the cost of clearing it would have been prohibitive, it was decided to locate the plant in a separate building. ) Lighting was developed in association with EWA and Arup lighting.
The building is controlled by a BMS system that combines control over all HVAC and electrical systems into a single interface.
Renovating the Baltic into a flexible and functional contemporary arts centre has been a very long journey for all involved. I hope that it becomes one of the great success stories of the Lottery and that the ambition and vision of Gateshead council is rewarded by the area finding a new lease of life.
Chris Brown, Atelier One
The new gallery is formed inside the original skin of the Baltic Flour Mill.The mill was originally constructed as a series of reinforced concrete cells or shafts, which set a very difficult structural problem.
The concrete cores were flour silos which also provided the structural stability to the building, yet would eventually be removed to make way for new gallery floors.The solution was to stabilise the external skin of the main building by use of a temporary space frame wrapping around it, then create a new structure within.First, with the space frame in place, the concrete was removed section by section until the building was completely hollowed out.
At this point, with three months between completion of demolition and beginning the new construction, the artist, Anish Kapoor, created the installation Tarantara, a bright red hourglass of fabric which was tensioned around the large openings of the two end walls. Once again this structure utilised the combined stiffness of the shell of the building and the temporary exoskeleton.
Early in the design, the four corner towers were proposed for vertical circulation so that the internal volume could be entirely given over to exhibitions.Using the foundations existing beneath the perimeter walls, large columns were inset from the perimeter providing a large single internal space with a perimeter arcade.This arcade provides access for all services and the beams spanning side to side were reduced to a minimum depth at the perimeter to facilitate the horizontal passage of services.
With internal shear walls at the columns, the new internal structure connects back and provides stability to the original facade.
The rooftop restaurant is then supported inside a stiff space frame sitting on top of these columns, with the frame extending out to the perimeter walls of the original building.
TENDER DATE July 1999
START ON SITE DATE September 1999
CONTRACT DURATION 92 weeks
GROSS INTERNAL AREA 13,200m 2
PROCUREMENT JCT 98 with Contractors Design Supplement
TOTAL COST £36,639,000
CLIENT Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council
ARCHITECT Ellis Williams Architects: John Adden, Iain Fairbairn, Jason Geen, Keith Jupp, Dominic Williams
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Atelier One
ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER Atelier Ten
QUANTITY SURVEYOR Boydens & Company
ACOUSTICS AAD LIGHTING Arup Lighting
ACCESS MANAGEMENT Burdess Access Management
FIRE MANAGEMENT Warrington Fire Research
CORTEN SURFACE TREATMENT ADVICE Mark Quinlan
ALUMINIUM AND ANODISING ADVICE AASC (David Parsons)
MAIN CONTRACTOR HBG Construction North East
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS cladding Broderick Structures; aluminium fabricator Sotech; stonework Classic Masonry; stone supplier McAlpine Welsh Slate; timber installer Timberworks; glazing Spacedecks; Corten Van Dam; panoramic lifts Otis; arts lift Elephante; wing door Architen; steelwork and castings Westbury; staircases, balustades and metalwork Sovereign Stainless; internal glazing/screens Greenberg; ironmongery John Plancks; doorsMartin Roberts, John Porters
Baltic www. balticmill. com
Ellis Williams Architects www. ewa. co. uk
Atelier One www. atelierone. com
Atelier Ten www. a10. co. uk Arup www. arup. com
AAD www. aad. co. uk
Warrington Fire Research www. wfrc. co. uk
HBG Construction www. hbg. co. uk
Costs based on tender sum.Costs rounded up or down to the nearest pound
SUBSTRUCTURE FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £42/m 2Piled foundations, in situ concrete pads and slab to Riverside and Energy Centre Buildings. In situ concrete raft strengthening beams and slab to Baltic building
SUPERSTRUCTURE FRAME £72/m 2In situ concrete primary structure with steel structure to intermediate floors and rooftop restaurant
UPPER FLOORS £35/m 2Post-tensioned in situ concrete to gallery floors.
Composite concrete/steel intermediate floors
ROOF £101/m 2Metal-profiled cladding on steel purlins with anodised aluminium overcladding. Glazed laylights to Baltic building
STAIRCASES £74/m 2Steel structure with chequerplate treads and risers.
Stainless-steel and galvanised balustrades with beadblasted handrails
EXTERNAL WALLS £189/m 2Repairs to existing facade. Structural glazed facades and anodised aluminium cladding WINDOWS AND EXTERNAL DOORS £44/m 2Double-glazed, powder-coated steel windows. Glass entrance doors INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £98/m 2Blockwork and metal studs. Glazed screens to admin areas and fire-rated screen to atrium INTERNAL DOORS £40/m 2Lacquered timber, glass and powder-coated metal doors. Bead-blasted, stainless-steel ironmongery
INTERNAL FINISHES WALL FINISHES £18/m 2Ceramic tiling to WCs. Paint
FLOOR FINISHES £52/m 2Timber boarding and slate. Ceramic tiling to WCs
CEILING FINISHES £40/m 2Painted plasterboard with cast grg detailing.
Anodised aluminium to restaurant. Fabric ceilings to gallery areas
FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGS FURNITURE, FITTINGS £78/m Fitted cupboards and shelving to admin/storage areas. Furniture to admin, library and archive areas.Electrically operated blinds
SERVICES SANITARY APPLIANCES £24/m 2Proprietary fittings including extensive facilities for disabled
SERVICES EQUIPMENT £38/m 2Catering equipment to restaurants
DISPOSAL INSTALLATIONS £9/m 2UPVC rainwater and waste pipework
WATER INSTALLATIONS £15/m 2Hot and cold water pipework
HEAT SOURCE £41/m 2CHP installation, boilers and calorifiers
SPACE HEATING/AIR TREATMENT £159/m 2Heating and air-conditioning systems. Automatic controls
VENTILATION SYSTEMS £21/m 2Supply and extract to WCs, smoke extract and exhaust extract to loading bay ELECTRICAL SERVICES £131/m 2Mains and submains distribution, lighting and lighting controls, power
LIFT AND CONVEYOR INSTALLATIONS £90/m 2Four panoramic glass lifts, two firefighting lifts, arts goods lift, three general goods lifts
PROTECTIVE INSTALLATIONS £19/m 2Sprinkler installation and lightning protection
COMMUNICATION INSTALLATIONS £50/m 2CCTV, security system, fire alarm, Cat 6 structured cabling
SPECIAL INSTALLATIONS £11/m 2Cleaning equipment
BUILDERS'WORK IN CONNECTION £19/m 2Various
EXTERNAL WORKS LANDSCAPING £82/m 2Slate and block paving, small area of soft landscaping
DRAINAGE £10/m 2Landscape drainage
EXTERNAL SERVICES £31/m 2Electricity, gas, water and telephone
PRELIMINARIES PRELIMINARIES £157/m 2