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Convert to art

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Client's account


Director, Ikon Gallery

The Ikon Gallery was established 33 years ago, in a booth in Birmingham's now notorious Bull Ring Shopping Centre. Since 1978 it had been housed in a converted carpet warehouse, with good gallery spaces but no visitor facilities, tucked down a back street with nightclubs for neighbours. In 1992 the lease came to an end.

Our brief for new premises identified a number of important requirements: a location close to other activities, accessible to passers-by, good gallery spaces for showing contemporary works, a cafe, public wcs, a shop, workshops, storage, facilities for touring exhibitions, and an education room. Full access for people with disabilities was crucial. We wanted a building that people in Birmingham would feel comfortable coming into: one of the factors that had put people off the John Bright Street premises was the entrance straight off the street into a large white space.

The Royal Exchange in Manchester, which so imaginatively combines old and new, and the Pier Art Centre in Orkney were two Levitt Bernstein buildings which had impressed us. It was important that the architect was familiar with current art practice and was sympathetic to our access requirements. In 1992, Axel Burrough of Levitt Bernstein Associates (lba) undertook a feasibility study on the derelict Oozells Street School. The development of the site was given new impetus by property group Argent in 1993 and a more detailed design study was undertaken. As a listed building, there would be constraints and it was important to establish with the city planners what might be possible.

The design process involved a close collaboration between client, architect and artist Tania Kovats. The arrival of the Lottery in 1994 meant that the scheme had a realistic chance of going ahead, at a more sophisticated level. Basements were added to provide much-needed storage and exhibition preparation areas.

Oozells Street School is a much-loved local building. The imaginative conversion has already aroused a lot of curiosity and there is no doubt that the building will be a significant factor in assisting Ikon to achieve its main objective of increasing access to the work of living artists.

Architect's account


Levitt Bernstein Associates

Oozells Street School was built in 1877 to the design of Martin & Chamberlain, Birmingham's leading Victorian architect. The school was extended by the same practice in the 1890s and further extensions were added around 1910. The original parts are in a robust and decorative Ruskinian Venetian Gothic style.

The building is in the Brindleyplace redevelopment area, across a canal from the International Convention Centre. When we first saw it, the Crescent Theatre and School stood like beached whales in 6.9ha of urban wasteland. However, a masterplan by Terry Farrell and Partners had been prepared and Fitch Benoy (as it then was) had planning consent for a development of shops and restaurants between the school and the canal, and for conversion of the school into an office building.

When Argent took over Brindleyplace in 1993 we were employed to undertake an external repairs contract to arrest deterioration of the school. Birmingham City Council was keen to see it converted to public use, but although the Conservation Advisory Committee had given our proposals support, the planners had concerns about the size and shape of the proposed extensions. It was only after lengthy discussions that we received planning and listed buildings consents. Ikon submitted a lottery application and a decision to fund further design development was made in the first batch of Arts Council lottery awards in April 1995.

The Ikon Gallery is devoted to temporary exhibitions of the works of living artists, with much emphasis on education and interpretation. We have attempted to create a building that will attract new visitors and where artists will want to show their work.

The school building is H-shaped in plan and three storeys high. The large linked classrooms on the first and second floors have been converted to provide 450m2 of gallery space. The galleries are restrained and simple conversions of the original rooms. The first floor has environmental controls to conservation standard in tall flat-ceilinged rooms with the option of natural side lighting. The top floor has lofty spaces with a variety of exposed trusses and the option of natural top and side lighting. The ground floor is devoted to the entrance, a shop, a cafe and support spaces both for the public and the works of art. A new basement provides further storage, workshop and plant areas.

The school had no main entrance, simply doors on to two stairs, one for boys and the other for girls and infants. These have become escape routes and a new entrance has been created in the front elevation. In order to keep the uninterrupted sequence of exhibition spaces, an elegant modern stair and lifts for the public and for servicing have been added outside the building, contrasting with the highly detailed red brick.

The route to the galleries via this glass stair is intended to be an enjoyable process, both a point of reference for visitors and a prelude for pedestrians approaching from Centenary Square. Six months into the contract, a European grant enabled us to rebuild the tower - a feature of all Martin & Chamberlain's schools, used to help natural ventilation of classrooms, it had been removed for safety in the 1960s.

An important principle of the design is to ensure that the route around the building is visually interesting but does not impinge upon the enjoyment of the exhibits within the gallery spaces. Gallery staff were closely involved in all decisions, from general arrangement to choice of taps. An access committee was also heavily involved in the choice of materials, colour and detailing.

The surrounding developments lowered the adjoining ground levels and a virtue has been made of this by setting the building on a dark slate plinth - a solution proposed by artist Tania Kovats who joined the team at an early stage following an Art for Architecture award from the Royal Society of Arts and gave us an artist's view on design issues - crucial when Ikon wishes to attract the best artists to work in its building.

Structural engineer's account


Peel & Fowler

An initial external refurbishment was carried out which involved dismantling and rebuilding some sections of the building and the installation of discreet ties to resist 'spreading' forces and the stitching and repair of many damaged areas. The conversion of the building to a modern art gallery demanded the installation of new ground, first and second floors, together with mezzanine floors for plant, storage etc. and extensive basements. Goods and passenger lifts and new staircases were also required.

Sampling, testing and analysis of the existing bricks, mortar and foundations showed wide variations in brick strength and mortar mixes and indicated the necessity for underpinning if the loads on the foundations were to be increased. In view of the very low strengths of some areas of brickwork, it was decided to support vertical loads from the new floors on an internal frame.

The new gallery floors were to be designed for superloads rather higher than required by bs6399 to give flexibility in the types of exhibitions which could be staged. Composite concrete ribbed Slimflor floors were used to give shallow construction depths and allow greater storey heights for storage, air-conditioning ducts and lighting. The floors are supported on slender rhs columns positioned behind the lining to the gallery walls, with the existing walls providing lateral stability. The floors and the new frame project beyond the original building to give access to the goods lift, which is a braced steel frame with lead cladding.

The main staircase/lift area is largely separated from the existing building and is fully glazed. The glass staircase is supported from two circular columns which run up to the roof with hangers running down to support the outer stair strings and landing members.

The new basement was constructed by 'top down' methods. Contiguous bored piles were installed close to the existing walls. These were designed to carry vertical loads and act as retaining walls. The ground floor is in-situ concrete, needled into the existing walls so that it transfers loads from the steel columns and walls on to the piles.

The replica tower has been introduced as a thin-walled rc shaft with a light steel frame at high level. The top of the tower is slightly higher than the neighbouring building, adding extra presence to the gallery.

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