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Nottingham Contemporary art gallery by Caruso St John Architects

Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary art gallery pays an elegant homage to its lacemaking heritage, says Kieran Long. Photography by Hélène Binet

Click here to read the engineer’s account
Click here to read the architects’ account by Adam Caruso

Nottingham Contemporary is already an unmistakeable landmark in the city. Visible as you arrive at the station and from the tram station platform, it is a gateway, climbing the steep hill that leads up to the city’s commercial centre. It also borders the Lace Market quarter, a collection of rather grand and sombre warehouses and offices that catered to Nottingham’s place at the heart of the lace-finishing industry in the 19th century.

This gallery was built to accommodate a very different legacy of the city - contemporary art. Nottingham has a vibrant art school and a history of performance art. Caruso St John Architects won a competition in 2004 (beating Hadid and Foster, among others) to create a building for an institution to nourish the art scene and persuade artists to remain in the city.

Their proposal, for a tricky sloping site, looked to create a building that derived from both the physical character of the site, and from the architectural character of the warehouse buildings in the Lace Market. From the station you approach the building from low level, and the extreme topography of the site is immediately apparent.

The building is highly visible and plays an important part in forming the skyline

There is a drop of 13m from the gallery’s entrance on High Pavement to the bottom of the site at Cliff Road. To the west is the infrastructural road of Middle Hill heading into the centre of the town, and to the east, the site is bordered by a large embankment with a grand Unitarian church (now a pub) perched on top.

There were some profound engineering challenges. The site was previously an old Victorian railway cutting that was used to accommodate large pipes serving the city centre’s district heating system. Because of the topography, though, the building is highly visible and plays an important part in forming the skyline of this part of the city.

Its green and gold livery is a significant new addition to the cityscape of Nottingham, especially the two golden flytower-like volumes on the roof, that shift and transform the image of the building as you see it from different vantage points in the city. Adam Caruso explains how the geometry of the building is derived directly from the irregular site.

The building follows the outline of the site on three of its sides, and pulls away from the eastern edge of the site to create a generous public staircase between High Pavement and Cliff Road. There is also a terrace for the café, and a new pocket public space in front of the main entrance, complete with stone bench.

The building derived from the site’s physical character and the architectural character of Lace Market

Its facades are very finely made. They are the most immediately striking thing about the building, made up of precast concrete panels in green, cast with a lace pattern in the surface.

The pattern was taken from a piece of lace found in a Victorian time capsule and it is, in the flesh, very beautiful and incredibly precise. It doesn’t so much look like a printed lace pattern, but like lace itself - super-realistic and with a certain fuzziness and softness. The concrete casting was done by making positives out of CNC-milled MDF, which were then used to create two 14m-long hard latex casts.

Some of the precast panels have the lace pattern along their length, and these were cast first. Other panels use the lace pattern as an edging, and the latex casts were cut down gradually to form these part-decorated panels. Between each concrete vertical is a gold-anodised strip, and this combination makes the building feel monolithic - a wall rather than a clad structure.

But like lace itself - super-realistic and with a certain fuzziness and softness.

The ‘billowing’ of the concrete wall and the golden towers on the roof give depth to the facade and reference another Caruso St John touchstone, JP Berlage’s Holland House in the City of London. While the patterning on the exterior also calls to mind the pop sensibility of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, to Caruso, it is a quite different attitude that generates the exuberant exterior.

‘In a way we were doing a warehouse - something that has repeatable elements. Modern precast is an amazing material, very fine, and we were explicitly connecting to a 19th-century way of making a facade. We didn’t want it to be a pop, Warhol-like thing.’ Caruso St John’s interest in the pattern of lace cast in the concrete panels derives from more than one source.

Of course, the relationship with Nottingham’s heritage of lace manufacturing is the obvious one. But Caruso also talks about ‘wanting to do a Louis Sullivan facade, (he cites the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, US, completed in 1896 and adorned with lavish, naturalistic terracotta decoration). There is a sense that, like Sullivan, they are making high-technology buildings using contemporary techniques, which are then decorated to relate to the city and to the history of architecture.

Caruso St John’s intention for the spaces and galleries inside was to mimic the quality of a found space. In a text written about the project, Caruso references three found-space galleries as contemporary role models for Nottingham Contemporary: Palais de Tokyo in Paris (Lacaton & Vassal 2001), P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York and the rather more obscure De Pont Foundation in Tilburg, the Netherlands, which occupies a former wool-spinning mill. All these institutions have a broad variety of rooms of quite particular character.

There is a sense that, like Sullivan, they are making high-technology buildings

Caruso writes: ‘Our project sets out to offer a wide inventory of interiors that have the variety and specificity of found spaces, within a new building.’ The exhibition spaces at Nottingham Contemporary are on the ground floor, and are all naturally lit, either from a grid of skylights, or, in the case of the northernmost gallery, by a combination of skylight and window to the street. From that point of view, the building does indeed feel like a Kunsthal, made for art that is less sensitive to natural light.

There is an irony in the fact that the inaugural exhibition (opening 14 November) will be a show of David Hockney canvases, entailing the blacking-out of many of the spaces. The entrance sequence takes you from the street, to the small court in front of the door (adorned by a beautifully made stone bench and protected by the marquee-like lobby), into an ante room, then into the reception.

This is an informal space, in plan a triangle with a corner cut off, like the site itself. A reception desk sits on the left and a concrete stair leads downwards.

From the reception, you can see into exhibition spaces, making the whole interior quite informal and open. This feeling is augmented by the thin walls that separate the galleries - they are explicitly non-structural, and the architectural intent is to imply that these walls could one day be removed. The rectangular gallery is the largest of the exhibition spaces, but perhaps the most characterful is the northernmost gallery, with its 10m-high ceiling, single large skylight and a 9m window facing the market cross just outside.

Caruso St John’s intention for the spaces and galleries inside was to mimic the qualities of a found space

Descending through the building there is the ‘mezzanine’ floor, which has an education room, the director’s room and a rather beautiful archive room looking south. Down one more level is the entrance to the largest space in the building, the concrete box of the performance auditorium. This room is 7.5m high and irregular in plan, with removable bleacher seating to give it as much flexibility as possible.

The full lighting rig is accommodated in the 1.5m depth of the concrete roof structure. Also on this floor is the café (allowing the café and theatre to openindependently of the rest of the building if need be), which gives out on to the south-facing terrace. Below is the loading bay. This is architecture at a very high level.

While it is by no means perfect, the time taken by the architect to get details right gives this building a sense of fineness and quality that is rare in this country. The precision of the precast exterior helps this feeling, of course, but there are many other touches - the paving pattern externally, the timber floors, the geometry of the skylights as they meet walls obliquely - all revealing that Caruso St John’s approach delivers an uncompromising quality in construction.

Exhibition spaces are naturally lit from a grid of skylights or by a window and skylight

Compared with Caruso St John’s New Art Gallery in Walsall (2000), there is a force and calmness to Nottingham Contemporary. While Walsall had to strain hard to be a landmark (configured in a tower), and created almost domestic-scale spaces for the collection of that gallery, this one concentrates on a forceful and luxurious exterior expression with a pragmatic attitude to planning that has created very flexible space inside.

It is probably a more explicitly popular building than Walsall, more glamorous, relaxed and easier to understand and, importantly, deeply rooted in the specific qualities of its site.

Start on site January 2007
Contract duration 30 months
Gross internal floor area 3,400m2
Form of contract JCT 98, Local Authorities
with Quantities
Total cost £12.3 million
Cost per m2 £3,620
Client Nottingham City Council
Architect Caruso St John
Project managers Mouchel, Jackson Coles
Structural engineer Arup, Elliott Wood
(external works)
Services consultant Arup
Quantity surveyor Jackson Coles
Planning supervisor Jackson Coles
Main contractor ROK/SOL Construction
Annual CO2 emissions 58kg/m²

Working Detail - Facade construction

The exterior image for Nottingham Contemporary was inspired by the impressive 19th-century facades of the city’s Lace Market, where hard bricks form a tough shell to the structural frames of the warehouse buildings. The rigour of their repetitive pattern and precise assembly lends dignity to the streets of the quarter. The centre’s facades form a continuous patterned surface of precast concrete elements.

The crude techniques and materials of the 1960s have undergone intensive development and it is now possible to create surfaces that are somewhere between stone, terracotta and concrete.

The terracotta facades of Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York, were a model for our facades. These finely moulded surfaces, with their rich and considered use of pattern, speak of their material and fabrication. Something of these qualities can be achieved with contemporary precast concrete, which requires less intensive skilled labour.

The starting point for our research was lace patterns. Computer milling enables formwork to be produced which is directly controlled by the architect. CAD drawings, graphics or even photos are translated into machine milling instructions, allowing positives to be cut from resin board. Hard latex moulds are then made, tough and flexible enough to be reused many times.

The patterned moulds can be used as modules within the formwork of individual precast units, allowing variety and hierarchy of patterning at little extra cost.

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