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From tea to artistry

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A 1960s Brooke Bond tea factory at Spike Island in Bristol is the new home of Artspace, a charitable organisation which provides young artists with inexpensive studio accommodation. The building, rechristened Spike Island Centre, has been refurbished by Niall Phillips Architects.


With npa’s help, Artspace found the building in 1994 at a time when its original studios were falling into a ruinous state. npa carried out a feasibility study on the Brooke Bond building and put in an early Lottery application which raised approximately £935,000. Other funding was raised privately and Bristol City Council gave Artspace a lease on the building for a peppercorn rent.


The warehouse is a remarkably handsome structure, more 1930s than 1960s in appearance. Rectangular in plan, it comprises a flanking garage and loading yard, a single-storey wing linked by a large central hall to a two-storey wing, and a two-storey front administration block.


The general fabric was sound, and npa’s main task was to divide the interior into flexible spaces which would include studios, offices, education and lecture rooms, a cafe and exhibition space. About 40 per cent of the space will be sublet to arts organisations.


npa’s approach has been to let the quality of the building speak for itself, in particular the cast concrete barrel-vault ceilings, emphasised by a new lighting scheme, and the magnificent central hall. Structural interventions are minimal and the new elements are deliberately expressed as new insertions within the existing fabric. They comprise blockwork and ply-faced studio partitions, glazed screens, the creation of a sculpture courtyard by removing a small area of roof and the insertion of a passenger lift and escape stairs.


Two areas of the building are outstanding - both as original spaces and in their refurbished state. One is the upper floor of the two-storey wing which has been converted into a studio ‘village’ laid out on a grid plan. The circulation routes are aligned with the valleys of the vaulted structure above to provide a qualitative difference between the public areas and the lofty toplit studio spaces. It is a stimulating space - raw materials, rough edges - the ideal environment for young artists. Stud wall partitioning is clad in self-pigmented render panels - rich blue in the portal entrances, blood red on the main ‘avenue’ (in contrast to the white finishes inside the studios), or oiled and waxed birch ply - a reference to the tea chests once stacked here. Doors to individual studios are made of monumental sheets of pressed plate steel, folded back to form sculptural handles. These heavy doors are set into structural portals to form thresholds between public circulation and private studio spaces.


The other remarkable space is the great central hall (once the teabag assembly floor), like an Art Nouveau gallery, with its 8m-span glass-block barrel-vaulted roof. The surrounding first-floor galleries have been screened in and are now divided into fine-art studios. The screening is in self- finished render and screens of opaque Reglit glazing channels, laid horizontally with silicone-resin spacers in between, individually supported on pins fixed into stainless-steel hanging rods spliced to oak doweling.


Artists Louise Barber and John O’Connor were commissioned under the rsa Art for Architecture scheme to work with npa on the project. Rather than producing individual works of art, the artists - both members of Artspace - collaborated with the architects from the outset, contributing to the development of the design as a whole. npa found their collaboration invaluable, both creatively and on a practical level.


The central exhibition space is the last part of the scheme to find funding and, although the centre is already open to the public, it has yet to be completed. When finished, a steel-mesh drum will divide the space into three ‘courts’, the central drum serving as a reception, cafe and informal exhibition space which draws the public into the heart of the building. The drum gives access to a formal exhibition space to the east and a working court to the west where visitors will be able to see artists at work. This tripartite division of the exhibition space will provide a unique arts environment, bringing together visitors and working artists.


An ambitious programme of artists in residence, educational activities and exhibitions is already under way to promote this key role, which Artspace sees as central to its mission.

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