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Finely chiselled: AG Leventis by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

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A well-honed sculptural sensibility informs Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ sophisticated art gallery-cum-apartment tower in Nicosia, writes Jay Merrick. Photography by Hufton + Crow

It is often a negative criticism to say that a building is object-architecture; and it has become banal to speak of landmark architecture. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ AG Leventis Gallery and Apartments in Nicosia is both, but in a sophisticated and positive way. The building is simultaneously a statement of cross-cultural creative inclusion, and a benchmark demonstration of domestic exclusivity - fine art in the podium; ultra des res in the ‘tower’ that rises from its south-east corner.

The only other building of comparable height in seismically challenged Nicosia is the Jean Nouvel-designed apartment block about 200m away, which has brought a Miami Bal Harbor chic to Cyprus. The Leventis building has a more beautifully crafted quality, and has given the skyline its most finely cut modern architectural outline. Before these two recent projects, the city’s tallest building had been the eight-storey Debenhams in the old quarter.

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Feilden Clegg Bradley won the commission from the Leventis Foundation in an RIBA-organised competition that had its roots in advice given by Iain Langlands, the retired director of BLB Architects, whose portfolio included projects for the National Gallery and Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. The task in Nicosia was to design a technically state-of-the-art gallery for important collections of European, Greek, and Cypriot art amassed by the late Anastasios Leventis, whose Anglophile family controls major commercial operations in Europe, the Middle East, and west Africa.

‘There is an equal fascination with the place and space for art,’ says Peter Clegg, ‘a relevant opportunity to contemplate space, light, and material; to respond to the aesthetic distillation of both space and object. We fought very hard to produce a monolithic carved architecture, a sculpted block cut away to create courtyards, terraces and roof garden, which are part of the character of the old city.’

The design concept seems to have at least three points of origin: firstly, existing Feilden Clegg Bradley buildings that have something of the same chiselled sculptural qualities and carefully composed disjunctions - Broadcasting Place in Leeds, and the Persistence Works, Sheffield, spring to mind; secondly, Clegg’s fascination with Aalto, Corb, and Ando; thirdly, his interest in archaic structures such as the 12th-century Bete Giyorgis church at Lalibela, Ethiopia, hewn directly out of volcanic rock strata.

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The original design, co-authored by practice partner Jo Wright, proposed a lower building, roughly the same height as the 19th-century villas across the street, with a space on the roof and a courtyard in the middle of the apartment segment. The idea was embodied in a small but potent perspex and cast-clay model. After the win, the form morphed. The central courtyard became a small plaza facing the street and the tower (which stops most of the direct sunlight from striking the plaza) became significantly taller, with one massive apartment per floor, rather than four. The building’s angled plan resembles a version of the Greek letter lambda, equivalent to L, though this was accidental.

Clegg describes the architectural form as ‘eroded in places to create balconies and terraces, and punctured to create light-slots for the galleries’. Design research included visits to Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, and the New Art Gallery Walsall, because, like the Leventis scheme, these galleries served private collections that were of national significance.

The 400-work Leventis trove contains notable paintings by Chagall, Canaletto, and Monet’s ravishing La Seine à Jeufosse près de Veron, and works of great power and regional cultural significance by artists such as Adamantios Diamantis and Konstantinos Parthenis.
The building stands on the southern dividing line between the old city, parts of which are Byzantine and Medieval, and the modern sector, which extended the city in the 20th century well beyond the still magnificent 16th-century Venetian fortifications.  These run for three miles around the historic core; the hendecagonal ramparts are ‘tipped’ with 11 pentagonal bastions. These historic geometries, and sense of mass, may have inspired the sharply angled projections of the tower balconies, and the smooth, finely jointed, facades of creamy mizzi hilu micritic limestone.  There is an almost laser-cut precision to the modelling of the facade details and, from 300m away, the building looks like a pristine, studio-made 1:50 model.

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The three-level gallery podium encloses three sides of the plaza. The south wing of the ground floor houses the restaurant and the tower’s lifts and escape stairs; the western side contains WCs, reception office area, and the introductory gallery; the north wing provides a sizeable temporary exhibition space. The staircase, effectively a substantial metal and wood sculpture, is a dominant and visually satisfying feature.

The long west side of the second floor carries works from the European collection in a continuous space, with four moveable walls spaced out along the middle of the long axis.  The Cypriot collection is in the northern wing, with an auditorium in the opposite wing. On the top floor of the podium, the Greek collection is ranged along the western and northern galleries, with offices and a large meeting room in the south wing.

What gives this straightforwardly rational arrangement its special character is the way natural light has been brought into play. Most of the podium’s east-facing elevation is glazed, and this spreads an even light into the foyer and the two north-south circulation balconies above it. Nine slim glazed slots in the roof of the podium carry light into the galleries, while a garden terrace at the base of an indent in the north-facing elevation illuminates the north ends of the central balconies.

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The outlooks from within the building are equally important: the architecture, though essentially a sculpted solid, is ultimately about city connections and the idea of a gallery as demonstrably public and of its place; there is no trace of hermetic white cubism here.

However, another kind of whiteness may be strangely relevant. In a city where summer temperatures regularly exceed 40°C, one can’t help thinking of a set of sculptures created by Clegg and Antony Gormley in 2005 in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago as part of the Cape Farewell project. Here, in temperatures of minus 27°C, they created Three Made Places - rectilinear, hand-sawn forms described by Clegg as ‘regularised and Euclidean … the densities of snow were between lightweight concrete and polystyrene.’ The sculptures expressed ideas about primitive architectural forms, the quarries at Bath and Carrara, environmental impacts, and subtler presences.

An orthogonal standing block, a buried block, and a snow cave metaphorised what Gormley described as ‘the physical space of a body, the imaginative space of conciseness, the collective space of fellowship’. Clegg saw them as ‘a community of forms’. Nine years later, one might imagine that this frozen ensemble had somehow resurfaced as the ur‑content of an architectural form, and imaginative space, for the communities of Cyprus.

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