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Working glass culture

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Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North looms over the A1, and the transformation of Newcastle’s Baltic Flour Mills into an international art gallery is under way. Sunderland’s £16 million Glass Centre is part of a wave of lottery-funded arts projects in the North-east. As the centre’s press officer, Alan Sykes, puts it, ‘We’re John the Baptist to the Baltic Flour Mills’ Jesus Christ.’ The Glass Centre is also the flagship building in Sunderland’s urban renewal programme. Built on a derelict site by the River Wear, the Glass Centre, along with the neighbouring Sunderland University campus completed by bdp (aj 27.3.97), brings life to a stretch of river which once saw a quarter of the world’s shipping, but has of late been woefully underused.

Ships which once passed by carried coal abroad. Sand used as ballast for the return journey supplied the raw material for Sunderland’s glass- making industry - an industry dating from 674 ad, when Saint Benedict Biscop sent to France and Rome for craftspeople to make stained-glass windows for the monastery at Monkwearmouth. The fortunes of the industry have thrived and dived, but studio glass companies still occupy the area, and the Glass Centre is set to make sure that the industry is both celebrated and preserved.

The competition brief issued by the Tyne & Wear Development Corporation in 1994 called for exhibition space, visitor facilities, workshops, studios and factory space. The Europe-wide competition was entered by 87 practices, and Gollifer Associates was awarded first prize. Ryder Company was appointed, after the competition, to work on pre-contract production information for the building envelope and external works, and the building became a hybrid design-and-build project.

Andy Gollifer feels that ‘reading between the lines of the brief there was probably an assumption that the factory and public space would be separate … but the jury immediately responded to the fact that we put them under one roof’. Set into the bank of the Wear, the base of the building is (almost) at water level, its gently sloping part-glazed roof growing seamlessly out of the land above. Conceived as a public square, the roof is able to hold some 14,000 people for public events, but on a day-to-day basis it is intended as a place for a casual stroll, offering a new angle from which to admire the river and gaze out to sea. Like the teashop at the end of a pier, a canopy at the edge provides a clear finale to the walk. The management seems genuinely relaxed about uses for the site. Sykes comments: ‘Skateboarding is officially banned - but I’m quite tempted to get mine out’.

Confronted with a glass roof, visitors jump and stamp, run across on tiptoe, or tread slowly and cautiously as though crossing thin ice. In fact, this is glass at its toughest - 6cm-thick panels supplied by the Consett-based firm Romag, which also makes bullet-proof windows for limousines. The most refreshing aspect of this building is that, where most essays in glass emphasise lightness and translucency, this celebrates its strength. Far from hovering, Farnsworth-style, it is rooted in the landscape, revelling in its own weight. Instead of total transparency, views are hidden and then framed: those inside the building chance upon worm’s-eye views of feet overhead, and, just as Cedric Price’s subversive design for steps allows passers-by to peer over the walls of London Zoo, Gollifer’s glass roof reveals sights which others pay to enjoy: those not too scared to look down are rewarded with bird’s-eye views of activities in the building below.

These activities are arranged according to a straightforward diagram: factory space set into the riverbank at the rear; a ‘threshold’ split- level strip of exhibition space above, and offices and workshops below; and a full-height space facing on to the river which houses the restaurant and shop. But the diagram has been tweaked with a deft touch, so that the journey through the 8000m2 building is full of surprises. The entry ramp which burrows down through the roof, hinting at a dark underworld, heightens the drama of the lofty riverside glazed hall. Poised on stilts, two space-age pods overlook this space. One of these has its own access, and is available for hire. Part inside and part outside the building, as if poised for flight, it perfectly expresses its status as both of and apart from the centre. From inside the room, views into the Glass Centre or out towards the water are both impressive, although it is disappointing that it looks back towards the more closed river aspect and towards Sunderland rather than out to sea.

The route from ‘sanitised’ exhibition space to working factory passes briefly into the open air, exaggerating the effect of the heat which the working furnaces exude. Gollifer is particularly pleased with the role of the furnaces within the building. They are essential to the commercial glass-making carried out on the premises, spectacular as exhibits, and the heat they provide is recycled and used to heat the public foyer. ‘Otherwise,’ says Gollifer, ‘a building with so much glass would be terribly cold.’ In summer, when it could get terribly hot, an ‘earth tube’ sends air some 3.5m below ground where the temperature is a constant 55degreesF, and uses it to cool the building. On current estimates, the heat exchange system saves some £80,000 a year in fuel bills. Cooling will have little impact in the factory area, but then, as Gollifer says, ‘factories do get hot’. Work in a sanitised form - whether it’s artists cohabiting with exhibits at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Technology, or actors performing tasks for an audience at Yesterworld - is now commonplace as a visitor attraction. At the Glass Centre, a raised walkway carries visitors a safe distance above a working factory which is noisy and sweaty and potentially dangerous.

If this is a ‘real’ factory, it is also a ‘real’, if modest, generator of jobs, creating some 50 in the first year of operation, with a further 50 forecast over the next three years. It will be interesting to see how the employees of Sunderland Glassworks, which rents the factory space, will respond to their status as live exhibits - will they skulk like zoo animals, in places where they can’t be seen? Mike Willshare, the company’s managing director, insists that his employees find the space uplifting. His company produces stained glass for ancient churches and cathedrals, but its mission is to encourage modern-day architects to use glass in more imaginative ways, and what better inspiration than Gollifer’s gutsy grasp of the material. And what about the hordes of gawpers? It’s highly motivating, Willshare reports: ‘These guys are actually performers rather than glassworkers - they love the attention.’

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