Take a failed £72 million ‘quirky unorthodox art centre’ by Will Alsop. Shut it down after four years. Hire Bond Bryan to convert it into a school
The autopsy on The Public started before it was even a corpse. The £72 million project was the last of the cultural buildings delivered with Millennium Commission money, but before it had opened its doors, the writing was on the bright pink painted wall. Its original architect, Will Alsop, had left the job, replaced in 2004 by Flannery and de la Pole; the centre was in administration before the first paying customer stepped over the threshold four years later; and visitor number forecasts had been slashed from 500,000 a year to 100,000. The prophecies came true, the naysayers were proved right and Alsop’s not-so-fun palace closed its doors on the 23 November 2013.
‘We decided to regard the building as abandoned,’ says Jonathan Herbert, managing director of Bond Bryan Architects. The practice was drafted in by Sandwell Futures - the agency set up to deliver Sandwell’s BSF programme - to transform the digital arts centre into a sixth-form college. Together with the contractor, Interserve, it has sought to rationalise the interior into a spatially generous, if very eccentric, educational facility. ‘I think Alsop’s legacy here is that he is still challenging,’ says Herbert, deadpan. ‘This building wants to be a quirky, unorthodox arts centre.’
As we begin to walk to the top floor to begin a tour of the building, it is startling to see how materially rich and structurally complex the original interior is. Both Bond Bryan and Interserve use the word ‘jigsaw’ to describe the rapid and convoluted process of understanding and renovation.
‘There were no as-built drawings,’ says Bruce Raw, a director of Bond Bryan. ‘We took what we could and tried to 3D model the building so we could begin to understand what was happening at each level.’
The existing M&E also proved a conundrum. ‘We were finding the odd drawing here and there,’ says project manager Dan Evans, commenting on the complicated history of The Public’s construction. ‘We ended up having to cut into walls and structure to try and work out what was going on.’
When the feasibility report was written up and returned to the architect, there was a note attached that asked: ‘are you sure?’
Educational buildings will generally look to provide in the region of 50-60 per cent designated teaching space, but this target was unrealistic for an institution as dogmatically programmed as The Public. Bond Bryan has found space for 22 basic, but not spartan, classrooms of around 40-50m² - including science labs and art spaces. The architect and college then found new uses and purposes for some of the building’s more peculiar areas, making minor adjustments to allow them to be comfortably inhabited.
This is most apparent on the upper floors. On level four, one of the few places where the floorplate meets the exterior skin, classrooms have been inserted between the substantial H-Frame trusses that support the floors and roof. Simple screens of interior glazing and a new suspended ceiling allow the light that passes through the amoeba-shaped windows to penetrate the corridor. There are a couple of science labs that butt up to the end of the building. At the other end are the ‘lily-pads’ - a nebulous constellation of pods that once housed start-up businesses and, left untouched, now lead to a resource centre. The pads are unfurnished, but students are using them as a semi-private oasis of calm, sitting in groups on the floor working or eating lunch.
Descending to the floor below, the servery and restaurant (that once hoped to house a Michelin-starred restaurant) have been ripped out to make way for two IT classrooms and a suite of computers for student use. The oak floor has been partially carpeted, and acoustic panels hang from the ceiling to cancel out the animated and raucous noise of the students. Strange artefacts from the building’s former life remain - ‘digital trees’ scatter the floor, looking folorn and bereft of purpose, a lesson in the dangers of excess.
The western end of the building is dominated by ‘the sock’, an ominous black pod suspended from the internal frame. Its triangulated form wrestles with itself and descends awkwardly and self-consciously to the floor. The spaces used to be galleries filled with digital art - the walls bulge around the oak floors. On the third floor the internal space is at its largest. Having been given a lick of white paint and a change of lighting, it has become an assembly space that can be used for drama, student exhibitions and open days. Before Christmas it will be used for sitting AS level exams. It’s a good space for concentrating during those lonely two hours; there are no distractions - the rest of The Public is eliminated by the solid walls.
The ramp that spirals up through the building was once a promenade through the techno-art that animated the walls. The long loop around the sock connected the ground and third floor. The architect has worked hard to try and make it work for the college, truncating the structure at the ground floor by around 80m to allow for an entrance lobby with the necessary security, and busting out halfway down to connect up a few steps to the second floor.
‘Nothing lined up,’ says Bruce. ‘Every floor and surface would slope or kink in a way that wasn’t shown on drawings.’ It is now a ponderous way to navigate the building rather than the principal means of experiencing the architecture and art - most students head straight for the lift.
Digital trees scatter the floor, looking rather folorn and bereft of purpose
The second floor has yet more classrooms, existing seminar spaces have been calmed down to make them conducive to study, and similar tactics have been used to create classrooms on the floor above. On the ground floor a café, open to the public, sits beneath the sock and ramp, the underside of the latter appearing like the vertebrae of some prehistoric snake-like creature. Behind the security gates are a series of classrooms that zigzag down the corridor in a sawtooth arrangement. These are prefabricated units called Podsolve, which Interserve developed for the education market. ‘They are pimped Podsolve,’ says Evans. ‘To make sure they fit in.’
Herbert is measured when reflecting on the work Bond Bryan has done. The architect developed a close working relationship with Interserve and Sandwell College for its nearby further education college, completed in 2012 - a building popular with students and staff. When the team reconvened to tackle The Public, the architect was understandably wary. ‘There was a conversation to sort the programme and what could reasonably be achieved,’ says Herbert. ‘We identified the constraints and worked within them.’
The project started on site in January and was delivered on time and under budget. The students are in and studying, there are around 500 enrolled, and it is hoped this will grow to around 800. It cost £5.9 million to turn The Public into a college - 7.5 per cent of its total cost.
It is still an oddity; there is a lot of wasted space and perplexing moments that could not be solved within the time or budget. It’s baggy, waiting for spaces to be claimed by students and staff, but this should come in time as they adjust to the building. The changes are basic, but robust and usable considering the budget. As a building, it’s not a great sixth-form college because it wasn’t meant to be a sixth-form college. After all the money that has been spent, it will adequately serve a purpose. This is in no way a criticism of Bond Bryan, which has unpicked a building that was never given a chance to do what it intended to do.
There are a smattering of Millennium Commission projects that have proved more successful in their second incarnation than their first - the Millennium Dome and Sheffield Centre for Popular Music both spring to mind, now the O2 and a students’ union respectively. The most galling thing in West Bromwich was that, even when it was commissioned, the notion of culture being a catalyst for urban regeneration had been largely dispelled. The aspiration for it to be a digital art centre with a Michelin starred restaurant was misguided; The Public needed to be something else. Alsop and the later architects were commissioned to design a building for a very specific purpose - an ideal that was abandoned through timidity and confusion.
Now, thanks to the mighty efforts of Bond Bryan, Alsop’s building is serving the community in a less obtuse way. It is a shame it was never given the chance to prosper as an arts centre, and it will struggle to prosper as a hand-me-down sixth-form college, but now at least it’s being used.