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WE AREN'T REALLY INTO AESTHETICS; WE ARE INTERESTED IN FORM

SPECIFIER'S CHOICE - NOTTINGHAM ARTS CENTRE

Sutherland Lyall talks to Adam Caruso and project architect Stephanie Webs of Caruso St John about designing a new gallery with performing arts space for Nottingham.

For at least seven years building up to the development of this project there had been discussions about a new art centre in Nottingham, a city which has existing galleries and a very active art and design scene. Nottingham Council decided to build a group of exhibition galleries with a space specifically for performance art, that lineal descendant of the 1920s Dada performance events and happening 1960s spaces. Most companies involved in such work have no fixed home, so Nottingham will now provide a venue for them.

Caruso St John was awarded the contract following a one-and-a-half hour interview, and started on a tour of similar spaces in Europe. Adam Caruso says: 'We often returned to the work of Gordon Matta-Clark and the way he had a restaurant downstairs from his studio in SoHo, New York. Something we were very interested in was the coincidence that our site was on the edge of Nottingham's Lace Market, a place rather like SoHo.

'I think the Nottingham curators could see that we were interested in their programme for the site, not an empty aesthetic.

We aren't really into aesthetics; we are interested in form.'

Working for a client which is also the planning authority can have its moments. But Caruso is enthusiastic. 'Nottingham has been an incredible city council and client, ' he says. 'Senior officers are key members of the team and senior planners have been absolutely brilliant. The council is very pro-business and pro-development.'

FULL SCHEDULE

The architect's appointment was a standard SSA99 with no revisions. Arup did all the engineering and the quantity surveyor was Leeds practice Jackson Coles. Acoustic consultant Tim Lewers was among a number of specialist consultants who had input.

Caruso says: 'We have had a long relationship with access consultant, David Bonnett. You need access statements and when we worked on the New Art Gallery in Walsall with him, we could work strategically. Since then, everything has become much more circumscribed. Britain is in the forefront and is very demanding.'

The main contract is the local authority version of JCT 98 with full measurements. Caruso says: 'This is the first time we have had a single-stage tender for everything. We went out with a full schedule and full drawings. Modern construction is difficult enough to do but this is a complicated job and we were fastidious and neurotic, producing nearly 200 drawings. It's slightly absurd because the contractor won't have opened every one of them and after the appointment we have to make sure that he does.'

CADCaruso St John used MicroStation PowerDraft for the drawings, while some feasibility studies were carried out on VectorWorks.

The practice started off with Macs and used MicroStation. Caruso says: 'Changing to AutoCAD would have been too traumatic. We use a lot of big models but we don't do presentation drawings. We start to use CAD quite early as a design tool. But we don't think it changes the form of our architecture. Our production drawings are much like what they were when we were hand-drawing.'

The practice has recently used an extranet on a project at King's Cross but here, Caruso says: 'Emails are a general problem because contractors tend to use them instead of communicating. The extranet is good because of its effect on the quantity of hard copy. At Nottingham I have a feeling that because it is a conventional contract it's not necessary.

The practice uses the electronic version of NBS. Caruso says: 'There is one part of the envelope specification where we worked with Schumann Smith - even here the notes are all NBS referenced.'

PROJECT MANAGEMENT

Nottingham wanted a project manager and Caruso St John was involved in the selection of Hornagold & Hills. How does it feel answering to the people you have helped appoint? Caruso says he is very happy with the situation.

He says: 'I used to be hugely sceptical of project management, largely because historically we had to do everything ourselves. Working with Hornagold & Hills has been very good.

They have huge experience with Lottery funding and a fantastic capacity to marshal together everything needed to confirm the commitment the Arts Council is making. In the end we led the design team meetings; they led the project team meetings.'

BUILDING The triangular site is on the edge of Nottingham's Lace Market area, bounded on its west and north-east sides by roads. The site dips from the north down to the south, where there is a low-level access route from the rest of the city. A set of grand open-air stairs along the curving east wall manages the pedestrian transition.

The building is complicated by teaching spaces and offices along the outer wall and a basement cafÚ, but it can be viewed as a big warehouse with top-lit galleries, one 10m high, at the upper level, with a big 8m-high space in the basement for performances. This is not black-box stuff. To start off with, everything is to be painted white or left as natural concrete.

Caruso speaks admiringly of the theatre consultant, Charcoalblue, which advised on such things as moving theatrical rigs around the big space. 'Working with them has involved us in a very sharp, open process of developing new ways in performance space. It has been a really productive collaboration, ' says Caruso.

SIZING UP

Project architect Stephanie Webs says a lot of value engineering has already taken place although the contractor has only just been appointed and the subcontract packages are yet to be let.

The enabling works, which involved rerouting heating supply lines, have been completed and the basic structural strategy agreed: building everything below ground-floor level in concrete, with the ground floor and above made of structural steel, clad mainly with precast concrete. These panels are scalloped, dark green, throughcoloured concrete made by Decomo, a number of them cast against a giant lace pattern to be specially crocheted for the job.

Webs says: 'We wanted the panels to be rough, fairly tall and to have areas of very detailed ornament. There was the idea of using lace as a pattern. And then came the question of how to transfer a lace pattern to the concrete. We have found a person who will do a piece of lace by hand, using much thicker thread than the original. But we are still deciding. Will we use the giant lace itself as a mould? We could do a 3D scan and a digital mould.

Or we could cast against it and make a rubber mould.'

The vertical panels will sit on a black concrete plinth and some sections of the elevation will have vertical, gold-anodised mullions to enhance the three-dimensional quality of the ensemble.

ROBUST INTERIOR On the ground floor, internal walls are 12mm plasterboard on 18mm thick water and boil proof ply on metal framing fixed to the gallery walls. This elaborate arrangement allows the plasterboard to have screws and hanging fittings constantly attached and removed. The performance-space walls are concrete or blockwork with a few plaster-on-metal frame partitions. The walls in fair-faced concrete will be the result of heavy persuasion and high-quality formwork. Webs says dryly: 'We have asked for sample areas. In the lobby and the bar area exposed concrete is not painted and we have ply panels to the walls stained in dark greens and reds.' WC walls are similarly stained MDF rather than ply.

Lobby and reception floors are an oak Triboard floor.

Webs says, 'We have used Triboard before this on floors and it can be used for furniture. It is laid up of three layers of solid oak each orientated at 90 degrees to the adjacent layer. The [sandable] top and bottom layers are 5mm thick and the core is 16mm - all solid oak. It comes in big 1.25 x 2.4m sheets with tongue-and-groove edges. The surface has 80mm-wide strips simulating floorboards.'

The ceiling coffers in the galleries are lined with cut and neatly sanded ply. Rooflights, made by Glazing Vision, have white powder-coated aluminium frames with security diffusing glass.

Gaps between the edges of several coffers will hold lighting tracks and double up as the means of extracting air from the galleries.

Acoustic spray from Oscar Acoustics has been applied to ceilings in the performance space, mezzanine, meeting room, bar and cafÚ.

Carpet from the Scandinavian Collection has been laid in the offices, and Triboard in the education spaces and the basement.

GREEN ROOF

The flat roof is waterproofed by a liquid tanking system and then treated to a sedum extensive green roof. It is bedded between the rooflights and on the big canopy at the front door.

Credits

Architect Caruso St John Architects: Adam Caruso, Peter St John Project architects Stephanie Webs, Adam Khan, Bernd Schmutz, James Payne, Kornelia Gysel, Kim Ah-ra, Sabine Rosenkranz, David Kohn Quantity surveyor Jackson Coles Structural, services and civil engineer Arup Project manager Hornagold & Hills Access consultant David Bonnet Associates Acoustic consultant Tim Lewers Acoustics Artist Nathan Coley Fire consultant Arup Fire IT consultant Jackson Kent Associates Security consultant Arup Security Theatre consultant Charcoalblue Form of contract JCT 98 Gross external floor area 3,400m 2Total cost ú11 million Start on site December 2006 Completion Spring 2008 CAD packages used Microstation

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