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Stirling Prize 2012: Hepworth Wakefield by David Chipperfield Architects

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The Hepworth is a solid and serious work, and a fine gallery of a type rare to find in Britain,’ writes Edwin Heathcote

Context is a funny thing. Its absence makes architecture virtually impossible yet its presence can either overwhelm or underline inadequacies in a contemporary architecture that lacks the complexity and sensitivity to respond to place, language, tradition or modernity in a meaningful way.

This is a site with context in buckets: some exquisite - the gushing weir, the variegated Victorian industrial riverside architecture; and some execrable - the crushingly typical traffic planning and a relentlessly grim walk from the city centre, which appears to encapsulate all of England’s problem with modern urbanism.

In fact, it is a site with too much context. David Chipperfield’s response has been to drown out the noise, to create a kind of moated castle, a solid cluster of concrete structures, which are revealed as discrete galleries in a plan of surprising irregularity from such a renowned lover of order. The plan is almost organic - a series of angular boxes and sharp corners, each contained in solid walls, which belie the architect’s Miesian reputation. Yet the visitor doesn’t particularly notice this irregularity.

It is a game which allows the gallery spaces to evolve their own characters, to create a sense of movement, which gently propels the visitor around the sequence. And they work extremely well with Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures, eschewing the harsh minimalist geometry of the white cube and creating a more sympathetic setting to Hepworth’s work. Most galleries have some kind of view, opening them momentarily to a glimpse of an urban moment.

If the galleries are resolutely not white boxes then there is also nothing white about the outside. Perhaps in a nod to the soot-stained mills of the industrial north, perhaps to reinforce the idea of this as a fortified bastion in the middle of the river (or in a river of polluting traffic and anti-pedestrianism), the walls are grey-tinted in situ-poured concrete. The monopitches of the gallery pavilions create a gently jagged roofscape, each volume a lean-to against the others. It stands up against that strange landscape, which manages to encompass both a roundabout and a medieval Gothic chapel, and it has presence.

Unlike many of the rash of ill-conceived lottery-funded cultural projects, The Hepworth Wakefield feels like a serious building, which has been made to last, in the way that Victorian and Edwardian municipal buildings made a lasting landscape of public culture.

The architect pointedly avoided making any claims for regeneration around this building. The justification for those lottery-funded capital projects has almost always revolved around spurious claims for what culture can do for the community. Chipperfield instead sensibly concentrated on making a good building and talking about it in terms of itself, its context and its contents. This has been hugely refreshing.

I have heard some comments to the effect that Chipperfield’s best work has been abroad. This raises the question of whether continental Europe’s deeply ingrained culture of architecture, public discourse and urbanism has spurred him on to more impressive achievements. It is difficult to argue when you see the Neues Museum, which is, I think, one of the few great achievements of 21st century architecture - a building imbued with a depth and complexity that can only come from a profound and long engagement with place, history and the fabric. But I think The Hepworth Wakefield reveals this notion to be a fallacy. It is a solid and serious work, and a fine gallery of a type rare to find in Britain.

It is a better building than the small and slightly limited Turner Contemporary, Margate, and it is more complex and satisfying than the exquisite yet slightly chilly Literature Museum in Marbach for which Chipperfield won the Stirling Prize.

It is not perfect, however. The approach and landscaping are not entirely satisfactory, and the 19th century notion of a grand ground floor with an operatic stair leading to the elevated plane of art works less well where the self-imposed strictures of contemporary aesthetics allow neither real grandeur or theatricality. The lobby is a little grim and the staircase not hugely uplifting, but the galleries are superb. It is a fine and serious building which will last. One of the best new museums of recent decades.

Edwin Heathcote is architecture and design critic of The Financial Times

Q +  A: David Chipperfield, director, David Chipperfield Architects

What was your initial design concept?

The initial concept was a response to the site and our preoccupation with the use of daylight in exhibition spaces. We were concerned that the site was simultaneously isolated and highly visible and exposed. The site chosen for the new museum meant that it needed to address the river, the regeneration area to the south and the elevated view from the new pedestrian bridge.

Museums in general tend towards enclosure instead of openness; we therefore understood that the form of the building was critical to dealing with this particular context. The original sketches show how we imagined that gallery ‘rooms’ with daylight at the high end could generate the shapes of the building as an agglomeration of forms.

Did the final scheme alter much from this concept?

In principle the ideas that we identified during the competition determined the final scheme and endured throughout the development of the project.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project - and why?

While there was a real desire from a number of different groups to make the project happen, the realisation of this project - like many public projects in England - was dependent on a fragile process of funding and support. This fragility, which leaves the project continuously at risk of collapse, often erodes the intensity of the design process.

In the end, this building is a testament to the determination of the community of people whose conviction kept the project going despite the difficulties and challenges.

What is the main lesson you have taken away from the project?

We think The Hepworth Wakefield proves that spaces for exhibiting art don’t need to be conventional white cubes – there is in fact a certain receptiveness to exploring art in spaces which are a little more geometrically interesting. The relationship between daylight and art is also one of our specific interests and this project allowed us to play with windows as lighting tools and windows as openings for connections with the outside.

What elements of the Wakefield townscape does the building draw upon?

Had the entire programme of the gallery been formed into a single monolithic block, it would have completely overpowered the natural grain and texture of the surrounding neighbourhood.

By breaking up the roofline, we consciously echo the pattern of the adjacent roofscape, fitting the new gallery to the existing scale of its surroundings. The remaining historic warehouses in the neighbourhood sit flush against the water, blurring the boundaries between river and city; we insisted that the gallery building’s principal facades should likewise sit in the shallows of the river, recognising its importance in shaping the landscape and retaining an important element of the neighbourhood’s character.

How did the curatorial ambitions of the Hepworth estate affect the layout of the plan?

The building adopts a classic museum organisation, elevating the galleries to the first floor and creating a circular loop of spaces. We wanted to provide a clear orientation while creating a sense that the visitor is free to wander. The challenge was to integrate the Hepworth Trust’s ‘gift’ with the city’s collection; balancing a desire to show the entire gift with the need to break galleries into accessible spaces. The solution lies in how the non-orthogonal galleries connect, creating a flow between the rooms and pieces.

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