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Assemble raises the roof on Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art

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Assemble has completed a gutsy rework of a public baths boiler house at Goldsmiths College in south London

The 1,000m² Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), designed by Assemble, opened to the public on Saturday (8 September) with an exhibition of the work of Mika Rottenberg. Amid an ongoing demonstration at the college, protesting at the working and contractural conditions of cleaners, this first exhibition has immediate resonance – with a series of video works which focus on the precariousness of labour in the globalised workplace.

The warren-like work spaces of Rottenberg’s videos, where people are trapped performing absurd processes, also nicely resonate with the labyrinth of galleries that Assemble has revealed, carved out in the hulk of what was the old boiler house and public laundry of the Grade II-listed Laurie Grove Baths. The disused baths were taken over by Goldsmiths in 1999 and the adjacent tiled Victorian bathing halls have since served as studios for Goldsmiths’ fine art students, with plasterboard partitions dividing up the old swimming pools.

Goldsmiths cca cafe 2 copyright assemble

Goldsmiths cca cafe 2 copyright assemble

Assemble was appointed as designer of the Goldsmiths CCA following an open architectural competition held in 2014, and the £4.5 million building has been part-funded by £1.4 million raised at a Christie’s auction of works by alumni of the college, including pieces by Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Antony Gormley.

The commission at the college, which was famously the birthplace of the YBA movement, seems a natural fit for the Turner Prize-winning architects. In fact it only won the Turner in 2015, after the appointment. It was a relatively untested outsider compared with the other five shortlisted practices – 6a Architects, Dow Jones Architects, Harry Gugger Studio, HAT Projects and Jamie Fobert Architects – and this was its first major building commission.

Goldsmiths cca exterior 3 copyright assemble

Goldsmiths cca exterior 3 copyright assemble

The ’public art centre’ accommodates seven gallery spaces, a café, curators’ studio and event space, and will offer a programme focused around exhibitions, events and education, intended to act as a ‘cultural resource’ for students and artists.

’It’s not a particularly big building. We tried to keep and amplify the idiosyncrasies of the existing spaces,’ says Adam Willis of Assemble. ’We wanted the different spaces to have different atmospheres, in terms of finishes and light. It has been almost like revealing the geological layers of the building. We looked to contrast the raw basement spaces and ground floors with more refined first-floor spaces.’

While some walls have been removed to open up floorplates as gallery spaces, the most radical additions are more noticeably in the vertical dimension – with a series of key moves and cut throughs that work up through the building.

So at the centre, a lofty basement-level project space has been created, its double-height volume formed by removing a large portion of the ground-floor slab. This is what Sarah McCrory, director of the gallery, describes as its ’social and theatrical heart’. ’It’s a space that will be programmed in a much more fast-moving way than the rest of the galleries,’ she explains, ’and will be able to host installations but also events and performances.’

Goldsmiths cca project space 4 copyright assemble

Goldsmiths cca project space 4 copyright assemble

The project space’s walls, as with all those on the lower two floors, have been left raw: pitted, scarred or tiled from their historic use. They are punctured by the doorways that used to lead into its upper levels – now lined with simple steel balustrades to form viewing points. At one end the whole space is further punched up into a slot which rises through first floor of the building, with natural light dropping down from a skylight – which also doubles as an openable smoke vent. ’We wanted to create a sense of openness and porosity to other spaces throughout,’ says Assemble’s Paloma Strelitz. ’There are purposefully relatively few doors.’

A stair has been inserted leading up from the main entrance on the ground floor. Above this, the roof has literally been raised by one storey, to form that of the newly created first floor. Yet it reutilises the original Victorian skylight, reglazed and repositioned above – a seamless scambling of new and old elements that is a noticeable feature in the project. On this upper level a sequence of four distinctive art spaces has been created – two reusing the carcasses of the Baths’ original cast iron water tanks – and two new-build, top-lit ‘white cube’ type galleries.

Goldsmiths cca lantern gallery copyright assemble

Goldsmiths cca lantern gallery copyright assemble

One of the water tanks has become a dark, moody gallery space, top-lit by a clerestory window. Its internal wall surfaces are left as the bare cast iron, cleaned, oiled and preserved – but braced inside by a series of steel columns to resist wind-load. This space is unheated and left quite raw – in graphic contrast to the more conventional adjacent white-cube galleries. Its top level has been lined with timber panelling but dyed by a ‘home-brew’ iron acetate stain to match the cast iron – using a process created by Assemble through dissolving iron wool in vinegar. The other cast iron water tank meanwhile has had its top removed, creating a small rooftop sculpture space or exterior gallery.

Goldsmiths cca tank gallery 1 copyright assemble

Goldsmiths cca tank gallery 1 copyright assemble

The acetate stain is just one example of hands-on experimentation of finishes and large-scale prototypes that Assemble designed and fabricated for the project, combining using industrial materials with a handmade approach. Thus the cladding to the upper floor galleries is formed of corrugated cement board, more commonly used for the roofs of industrial sheds, but here dyed turquoise – inspired by the ceramic tiles found within the Victorian baths – in a process using an acid wash fabricated in Assemble’s workshop at Sugarhouse Studios. Elsewhere it has also fabricated the pink cast-concrete panels that form the reception desk and café counter; while elements like lampshades were manufactured in the Granby workshops in Liverpool which Assemble helped establish.

Overall this is a gutsy rework that both preserves the distinctive layers of the history of the building and uses bold moves to create rich new incident and spaces for showing art. With such a building under its belt, it will be interesting to see where Assemble goes next. 

Goldsmiths cca render created by assemble. (2)

Goldsmiths cca render created by assemble. (2)

Source: Assemble

Rendered Section

Architects’ view 

Given the relatively modest scale of the building in comparison to many other contemporary galleries, we wanted to capitalise on the potential for creating an art centre which offers great variety. The design offers a series of very diverse and distinctive rooms for display – contrasting qualities of light, varying proportions, different levels of finish, and a range of environmental qualities. We hope that this array of spaces will offer a unique and challenging experience for exhibiting artists and visitors alike.

Adam Willis, Assemble 

We were thrilled to win the commission to design a new public centre for the arts in London. Our aim has been to create a welcoming and theatrical centre which connects the public to the Bathhouse’s past, and to its future – as a space of artistic production and exploration. The architecture forms the first act of Goldsmiths CCA, and we’re really excited to see it evolve within the city’s cultural landscape, opening up opportunities for creativity, participation and collaboration to the student body, the arts community and the wider public. 

Paloma Strelitz, Assemble 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The retention of some of the muscular cast iron pipes also adds to the character of the spaces - with those in 8/24 particularly sculptural.
    And hopefully 3/24 is a 'before' shot, with the naff asbestos (?) cement clad 'lid' on the water tank now removed.

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