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Come Together – Reinventing the Arts Centre

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Is it time for a new and more radical approach to the idea of the Arts Centre? A debate organised by the Architecture Foundation earlier this week sought answers, reports Owen Pritchard

‘Come Together – Reinventing the Arts Centre’, the first debate organised by the Architecture Foundation under its new director Ellis Woodman, was intended to examine the post-war model of the arts centre and its influence on how we provide places for culture and challenge the precedent of concentrating arts into a small number of centralised locations. The debate, held on Monday night, was framed by the new projects that will shape the cultural agenda of the capital in coming years - the proposed relocation of the Museum of London to Smithfield Market, with the current premises being turned into a concert hall; plans to refurbish the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank; and the Olympicopolis, set to incorporate an outpost of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Smithsonian Museum, a new Sadler’s Wells dance theatre, facilities for University College London and the University of the Arts.

The AF invited Christoph Grafe, director of the Flemish Architecture Institute; Igor Toronyi-Lalic, arts editor at the Spectator; Freek Persyn, director of Belgian practice 51N4E and Liza Fior, director of London-based architects Muf to present a position on what the future of the arts centre may be.

Grafe presented a ten point potted history of the arts centre, citing the model of the ‘singularly challenged, extraordinarily dynamic’ post-war generation who understood the provision of the arts as a political and sociall necessity. This traced the history of the art centre from the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre and Hayward Gallery in the UK, the Kulturhus in Stockholm through to modern examples such as Frac, the Palais de Tokyo and De Singel. Grafe highlighted the significance of sites of ‘cultural production’ where ‘society learns the rules to its games.’ He stressed that arts centres need to do something rare – ‘To provide a moment of specialness for arts to state their place in the city.’ It was a fascinating presentation, if an easy sell to an audience of architects gathered in the Barbican – itself a conglomeration of city and arts centre beloved by large swathes of the profession.

“the post-war model of the arts centre is inflexible and anti-experimental”

Toronyi-Lalic, taking the role of the antagonist on the panel, opened with the statement that the post-war model of the arts centre is inflexible and anti-experimental. “The way the centres work are enshrined in the way the are formed,” he argued. His point was that architectural forms physically limit the way in which art can be expressed, that fashions and the prevelant art forms of the day dictate the architecture and do not anticipate what may come next. Toronyi-Lalic sees the art centre as the antithesis of creativity – arguing we would be better off getting rid of them, dispersing funding and resource to harbour a bottom-up programme of cultural production. This is a romantic idea, maybe, but does offer a fluidity and nimbleness that established institutions can be accused of lacking.

Persyn and Fior were able to demonstrate that architects had attempted to address some of these challenges. Each presented schemes and precedents that showed an evolution from the model that Grafe had explored to the fluidity that Toronyi-Lalic had called for. Persyn presented the raw spaces of the Buda Arts centre in Kortrijk designed by his practice 51N4E. Some spaces in the building are not serviced with heating or lighting so ‘the unusuability of the space means there are no rules – it means there is a liberal approach from the people that use it.’ Through other projects in Moscow and France he concluded that designing an arts centre demands a ‘spatial answer to an unstable question.’ Fior, reiterating the importance of the physical presence of arts organisations, called arts centres an ‘enclave and toe-hold in the city’ and cited that, despite Toronyi-Lalic’s reservations about the limitations permanent cultural buildings place on performers and audiences, it was important for some organisations not ‘to work with its architecture, but despite it.’

What became clear from the event is that cultural provision in the UK is bestowed on the public by a combination of political and commercial funding. It is essential for curators and directors to find a balance that ensures the increasing reliance on commercial funding that does not interfere with freedom of expression and creative ambition. It is unclear if, in providing new multidisciplinary arts centres, we are consolidating our cultural capital or institutionalising it. Is making a specific place for arts to manifest and resonate in the city nurturing or containing creativity? As the next generation of arts centres emerges, the architects behind them need to find a balance between permanence and flexibility, but also to challenge the complacency that established institutions can justly be accused of.

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