Originally founded by the Romans shortly after their conquest of Britain in AD43, Chichester has many historic areas of townscape, the most important of these being the Pallants - divided into North, South, East and West. It's in this sensitive part of the city that Long & Kentish, together with Colin St John Wilson & Associates, has built its new gallery: an addition to the Grade I-listed Pallant House A Queen Anne building dating from 1712, Pallant House was commissioned by Henry 'Lisbon' Peckham, a wine merchant, and has very fine oak interiors and carved brick exteriors. Pevsner calls it 'Chichester's most ambitious Georgian house'. Chichester Council later purchased it to accommodate offices, and made a number of unsympathetic additions. The building was then offered to the trustees responsible for setting up the original gallery.
The gallery's holdings have been described as 'a collection of collections', bringing together the Hussey bequest of modern painters, the Freeman collection of porcelain, the GolderThompson print collection and many examples of modern British paintings and drawings from the Wilson collection. The last of these has been put together over a lifetime by the architects Colin St John Wilson and M J Long, and has works on loan to Tate Modern, the Center for British Art at Yale, Connecticut, and other major galleries throughout the world.
As the original Pallant House galleries were such a success, the trustees decided to enlarge the building. An adjacent Neo-Georgian town house was purchased with a view to its demolition and the creation of new galleries. This enlargement would, in addition, take pressure off the original house, as well as allowing improved access. Many of the unsympathetic additions could also be removed, given that more space would be available in the new building. At this stage, Long & Kentish and Colin St John Wilson & Associates were asked to prepare a design.
The new site is roughly L-shaped, formerly occupied by the town house facing North Pallant and garages facing East Pallant. It is approximately three times the area of the original house and is surrounded by historic residential properties. The task facing the architects was one of placing a substantial modern building of non-residential use into the fragile historic context of the Pallants.
Among the many design directions architects have taken when faced with a situation like this, two stand out as being the most successful. One is the approach of reecting historic context in an abstract composition, as illustrated by Rafael Moneo in the town hall for Murcia. In contrast is the approach that dematerialises the volume of the new building by using glass reections, melding the structure with the landscape - as in Jean Nouvel's Fondation Cartier in Paris, which sidesteps the issue of fitting in by appearing not to be there at all.
At Pallant House the architects have taken the former route. With a subtly proportioned composition and the use of local materials, they have 'grafted on' a large modern building to the historic Pallants townscape with great success.
The new entrance elevation is set back from Pallant House itself, making the original building more 'stand alone', and this has been emphasised further by extending Pallant House's cornice around the corner (previously it was terminated by the Neo-Georgian town house). From this entrance the building unfolds, with public spaces at ground level, galleries above, and wraps round the existing garden - resulting in a plan quite similar to a traditional French hôtel.
The entrance elevation is formed from a combination of Sussex brick, glass and glazed red terracotta. The stairs and lift are located in a slot between the listed building and the new gallery.
The architects' original design envisioned this as being entirely transparent, leaving a clear visual separation between old and new structures - a strategy which Foster and Partners adopted in its successful extension to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.
At Pallant the idea was developed further by introducing glazed terracotta, adding more solidity and enclosure to the slot. This material acts almost as a ligament between the solid-brick areas of the new elevation and the original Pallant House.
Terracotta is used again in the entrance area, in the form of a large screen of the ribbed tiles. The effect is dramatic and has distant echoes of Aalto's column treatment in the lobby of Finlandia Hall. The modelling of this new elevation again takes as its reference the original Pallant House facade, whose overall proportions are determined by the golden section, as is the vertical rectangle of its central entrance bay. The new elevation takes a slotted rectangle of brickwork and sets this against the vertical circulation rectangle, both of golden-section proportion.
Further references are made by adopting the window/ brick bay proportions of the original house. These are adopted at ground level as actual openings to the bookshop and are described in slots in the main body of brickwork; the slots, with their different intervals, indicate the volume and height of the first oor galleries. In the same way that Aalto's town hall at Säynätsalo sits so comfortably on its site, this combination of brick openings and slots gives the gallery entrance elevation an abstract formality that also seems at ease in this quiet Chichester street.
The elevation to still-quieter East Pallant is less formal, with an interplay between the geometry of the first- oor galleries and the groundfloor restaurant/back-of-house spaces. The galleries continue the main elevation geometry round to the angle of East Pallant, creating a series of angled volumes resting on the groundfloor spaces. The overall effect of brick and render gives a relaxed feel to the elevation and allows what is a substantial public building to sit comfortably in its historic residential surroundings.
Internally, the building is organised over two levels with connections through to the existing Pallant House galleries. This will be one of the great delights of the extension: the possibility of walking from new to old and seeing the collection as a continuous set of rooms.
Groundfloor spaces include a bookshop, library, prints collection and restaurant, organised around a central glazed area open to the garden. Gallery director Stefan van Raay is keen to reduce the number of works in storage and maximise those on show - an example of this occurs with the Freeman collection of porcelain, seen primarily in a display adjacent to the restaurant.
A series of large drawers below glazed cabinets will ensure that the items can be stored safely, but also encourages a frequent change of exhibits.
The stairs and lift rise within the terracotta-and-glass slot to reach the firstfloor galleries that are laid out as a series of rooms. Light enters the spaces from skylights within the roof void, leaving walls entirely clear for artworks to be displayed. Many of the new galleries are similar in proportion to those of the original house, adding to the ow between the two. Two more spacious galleries will be suitable for larger exhibitions and lectures but, again, these are broken down at roof level with pitched skylight clouds. The gallery sequence culminates in a small conservatory, on an axis with the central bay and stair of the original house, that looks out over the new garden, designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole.
The separation of galleries and non-gallery spaces on two levels allows a clear and simple servicing/energy management strategy. Ground-level non-gallery activities are naturally ventilated. Mechanical ventilation and air conditioning is restricted to the upper galleries, with ground water extracted via bores for cooling during summer. In addition, plant rooms, ducting and diffusers are all at roof level, with air entering the separate galleries via central clouds below the roof pitches. This gives very direct access to services and keeps plant rooms hidden below the copper-clad roof.
The structure is straightforward, with load-bearing walls, concrete oors and precast gallery roof units. The combination of structure, service clouds and natural light results in a beautiful series of galleries. These are modern, in contrast to the original house, but relate strongly in terms of proportion and dimension.
The light level is such that a degree of artificial light can be introduced to create drama.
The principle of a gallery as a series of rooms, as opposed to a hangar, is very appropriate. The separate roofs over each of the rooms break up the overall volume, allowing the building to fit neatly into the grain of this part of Chichester. Moreover, many of the works in the collection are quite modest in size, originally meant to be seen in residential spaces, reception rooms or libraries.
The smaller scale enhances the viewing experience.
Talking with M J Long and Colin St John Wilson in their studio, it is clear that the bringing together of the Wilson collection, seeing it as an entity in one building for the first time, generates great excitement; while Stefan van Raay believes that there are few galleries (apart from Yale) that have so important a collection of British modern paintings. It's therefore a great achievement that a building that will have such a strong presence on the international art scene is able to sit in this quiet Chichester street in such a modest, beautifully crafted manner.