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Firstsite, Colchester, Essex, by Rafael Viñoly Architects

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Gold Rush - Colchester is the latest town to receive a unique cultural landmark, but is Rafael Viñoly’s delayed golden crescent worth its wait?

The cultural building boom of the past decade is over. It has been controversial, in terms of procurement and architectural vision – and cost– but the legacy is clear: we now have a clutch of new venues where Britons can enjoy the arts more often. And not just in our bigger cities.

Wakefield has David Chipperfield’s Hepworth. West Bromwich has the Public by Will Alsop. There’s Eric Parry’s Holburne extension in Bath and MIMA in Middlesbrough by Erick van Egeraat. Eastbourne has Rick Mather’s Towner and Margate has Turner Contemporary, also by Chipperfield.

And now historic Colchester finally has Firstsite, a huge, golden, crescent-shaped hall designed by Uruguayan-New Yorker Rafael Viñoly. It is another iconic landmark, three years late, £10 million over budget, a classic of the age.

The free-to-enter, 3,800m2 building provides a home for Firstsite, an established visual arts group, and includes galleries for international exhibitions and works from the University of Essex’s collection of Latin American art. There are also learning spaces, a restaurant and a 190-seat auditorium in the £28 million shed. It has already become an important focus for the town and will, according to councillor Paul Smith, ‘put Colchester on the map’ in its bid for city status.

Clad entirely in standing-seam strips of TECU Gold, the building literally dazzles. ‘Why is it gold?’ Viñoly asks as he leads a tour of his latest work. ‘There is no real answer. Perhaps to make it doubly noticed.’ That’s certainly true. The completed building, set in parkland alongside historic buildings and within sight of the original Roman wall, closely resembles the dramatic rendered images that have been floating around the web for years now, and which adorn signs in the railway station that read: ‘Colchester: More than Britain’s oldest recorded town’. In many ways, it is a remarkable achievement that it has actually opened at all. But it also serves as an example of what can happen when procuring under the cult of starchitecture.

Viñoly won a competition to design a new arts venue for this most ancient of Roman British settlements in 2004. An initial RIBA notice drew 103 applications, 18 (including Viñoly) from overseas. Alongside Future Systems, Behnisch Architekten and David Chipperfield Architects, his firm was invited to submit designs by the client, a wide-ranging group formed of Firstsite, Colchester Borough Council, Arts Council England, the East of England Development Agency and Essex County Council.

The aim was to create a venue capable of attracting 150,000 visitors a year. That may seem lofty, but since its formation in 1994, Firstsite has drawn major players: Bridget Riley, Yoko Ono and Antony Gormley have all exhibited in the nearby Minories Art Gallery. One of Louise Bourgeois’ seminal spider sculptures was shown in Colchester in 1996, four years before Tate Modern exhibited a larger version in its Turbine Hall. By 2007, shows of this calibre, under the guiding hand of director Katherine Wood, were attracting 80,000 visitors to the terraced showrooms on Colchester’s High Street. This was always a project that had a purpose.

Viñoly’s masterstroke was to convince the client it had picked the wrong site. The architect proposed a ‘pavilion in the park’ scheme on land to the east of the original Queen Street ‘townscape’ site. The centre of the single-storey crescent form aligns with the entrance to the Grade-I listed East Hill House on the High Street to the north, and its ends attempt to enclose the villa’s 18th-century landscaped gardens. Viñoly explains: ‘The idea of the shape was more to do with bringing people in from Queen Street, and getting them from one place to another, as well as responding to the curvature of the D-shaped garden.’

There were risks involved. Despite the site’s ancient scheduled monument status, inspections revealed no evidence of any worthwhile archaeology, so English Heritage waved it through, with a caveat forbidding even topsoil excavation to protect remains identified 150mm below the surface. Engineer AKTII’s solution was a raft foundation sat upon a metre of recycled fill.

The distinctive curved form is shaped by a 400-tonne steel portal frame that sits on a ring beam at the raft perimeter, spreading the load thin across the site. ‘The building kind of lands on the ground,’ says Viñoly. ‘It almost doesn’t even touch nit.’ This effect is accentuated on the rear elevation, the outer curve, where a raised timber terrace floats above ground level and long strip windows skirt the grass. It is a pleasing effect.

You enter through the huge front door with a glazed screen that frontsthe airy reception. From here you follow a route that peels off deeper into the plan and gives access to the galleries and the auditorium, which is clad with diamond-patterned, suede-like acoustic fabric and overlapping European cherry timber shells. You continue past sloping, curving walls, set under a double-pitched roof with clerestories, until you reach the restaurant. To exit, you must double back. At first, this seems to defy gallery circulatory logic. ‘The main idea was not to connect one end to the other, because it is not necessarily a sequential scheme. It’s not an exhibition-based circulation, which is what you would find in a museum,’ says Viñoly. ‘You could come just for an event in the auditorium and leave, right?’

In this respect Viñoly is right, although an orthogonally planned circulatory building not limited to a single storey may well have proved easier and cheaper to build. Yet despite criticism of its sloping walls, the galleries will attract exhibitors and the building will probably prove a popular success. The other facilities, too, seem at least fit for purpose. But the troubles that have beset this ambitious project have been shocking, and too high a price to pay.

Medium-sized contractor Banner went bust trying to build it. But then a fresh-faced client might have been better advised against picking a builder for such a complex piece of architecture on price alone. This was made clear when structural specialist Eiffel (of ‘Tower’ fame), hired to fashion the glazed entrance as well as the curved roof glazing, was removed because inherent geometric complexities were proving too costly to solve. That local politicians regularly did their best to undermine it was another major setback (it still is: just two weeks ago, days after opening, Bob Russell, Liberal Democrat MP for the town, demanded an inquiry).

And when unpaid subcontractors walked out at the end of 2007 leaving it empty for nearly a year, it became a home for pigeons and rats – and water. Much of the studwork and plasterboard was ruined and had to be ripped out when work eventually recommenced. It was even considered for demolition before Mace and Jackson Coles found a way to refocus the programme and get it going again more than a year after it was supposed to have opened. There are matters outstanding still: the council has set aside £500,000 for legal proceedings against original project manager Turner & Townsend. In the end, Colchester has a vibrant new cultural asset, but one that has cost far too much.

Despite its strong programme, Firstsite has just one permanent exhibit: the Berryfield Mosaic, which dates from around AD 200. Although the glass screen marking its position beneath the gallery floor suggests an as-found condition (it was probably a living-room floor in a townhouse), that is not entirely true: it was uncovered nearby in 1923, and then removed to Colchester Castle’s museum. Its incorporation into Firstsite came towards the end of the construction programme. As one team member murmured during the visit: ‘We’ve pretended to build around it’. Instead of nodding in acknowledgement, I really should have asked him why.


Type of procurement Competition won in 2004
Opened September 2011
Gross internal floor area 3,800m²
Total cost £28.2 million
Client Colchester Borough Council
Capital partners Arts Council England, Essex County Council, East of England Development Agency, Firstsite
Architect Rafael Viñoly Architects
Structural engineer AKTII
Mechanical/hvac and electrical engineer Arup
M&E consultant Mitie
Project director Jackson Coles
Construction and cost management Mace
Roofing, cladding and windows consultant Richardson Roofing
Glazed wall Firman
Floors and specialist joinery Ruddy
Drywall consultant Fireclad
Painting and decorating Lucas
Architectural ironmongery Glazzard
External works PJ Carey
Landscape consultant Kinnear Landscape Architects

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  • "Wakefield has David Chipperfield’s Hepworth. West Bromwich has the Public by Will Alsop. There’s Eric Parry’s Holburne extension in Bath and MIMA in Middlesbrough by Erick van Egeraat. Eastbourne has Rick Mather’s Towner and Margate has Turner Contemporary, also by Chipperfield." any good, seriously?

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