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RIBA Awards 2015: Cultural

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Peter Wilson on the challenges of commissioning award-winning cultural buildings

New arts buildings often have a higher public profile than similarly-sized buildings used for other purposes. They can be technically complex, and generally their budgets are challenging. Often the arts client – or the committee behind the client – is as high-profile as the proposed building.

Behind many arts clients is a range of demanding experts, all of whom are determined to ensure that their voices are heard. Sometimes arts organisations wish to appoint an architect who is as high-profile as the building type – this is thought to help with fund-raising, or avoiding risk because they are appointing someone who has already designed several similar buildings. However, arts organisations can also wish to be seen as imaginative clients, fostering new design and new talent. In summary, then, there is no single route to winning a competition for an arts building nor for choosing the right architect for one.

After many years I have learned that a successful choice of architect depends largely on selecting an appropriate balance between the architect’s experience and its ability to collaborate with a complex and technically demanding client.

This balance is project-specific. Some clients need a ‘star’ architect; some don’t. Some projects demand a striking design; some don’t. Not every architect is open to collaboration with an inherently collaborative client. 

To make the right choice, clients should debate the type of architect they wish to choose. Is experience of arts buildings important, or is architectural style important? Should the ability to collaborate be tested? Is general professional recognition of an architect through RIBA awards important or must they have produced an admired building of a similar type? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but there are right or wrong choices of competition process in response to the answers. The competition process ought to tell an aspiring architect whether they stand a reasonable chance of succeeding.

My preference is for a competition that reveals whether a successful and productive architect-client relationship can develop.  This is best tested by a multi-stage workshop process that reveals, for example, whether the client is being heard or whether junior members of the architects’ team are being allowed to contribute.  The tests can be very subtle but much can be learned by holding workshops in the architect’s office. How was the workshop organised?  Was there a discussion or a presentation?  Was there room for informality?

Once an appointment has been made, how can the relationship achieve the best outcome for both parties? Effective collaboration arises from mutual understanding: arts clients should ensure their architects develop an understanding of their business and creative goals; architects should ensure their clients understand their way of working and their creative goals.

This takes time and effort: clients need to visit the client’s exhibitions or performances; the client needs to visit projects by the architect. All this takes effort but, in my experience, when it works – as it almost always does when both parties are committed to it – the results are always extraordinary.

Peter Wilson was client on all of Tate’s construction projects 1990-2005, and client for Bennetts Associates’ 2010 transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon

RIBA Award winners

National Theatre, London by Haworth Tompkins

RIBA Awards 2015: Cultural

RIBA Awards 2015: Cultural

Source: Philip Vile

National Theatre by Haworth Tompkins

Client The National Theatre
Contractor Lend Lease (phases A & B), Rise (Phase C)
Contract value £48.5 million
Gross internal area 16,309m²
Region London

The assured reorganisation of the front-of-house areas gives the theatre a clarity and a sense of arrival it has never had before; the new foyer ‘bay windows’ feel authentic, as well as adding valuable room. These new spaces to the north-east radically transform what was a service corner into a new stretch of the South Bank.

All this was made possible by the additional workshop building to the rear, which is a well-judged piece of architecture. The architect has also added a public processional route through the workshop spaces – a gallery to previously unseen back-of-house spaces.

The decision on materials is thoughtful, and the articulation makes a measured event that adds interest on the street without departing from the functional restraint that characterises the building.

The Whitworth, Manchester by MUMA

RIBA Awards 2015: Cultural

RIBA Awards 2015: Cultural

Source: Alan Williams

The Whitworth, Manchester by MUMA

Client University of Manchester
Contractor ISG/Manchester & Cheshire Construction
Contract value £15 million
Gross internal area 1,856m²
Region North West

This extension to the 19th-century Whitworth Gallery builds on John Bickerdike’s 1960s work in a way that, on entering, seems subtle in the extreme, but gradually builds outward. MUMA has stripped out the worst of the 1960s additions, such as suspended ceilings, and reinstated earlier spatial relationships – the gallery now embraces Whitworth Park. The café is both a pavilion and a place from which to look back into the galleries. The structural stainless steel mullions of the new rear elevation and café both dissolve and reflect. The creation of elegant basement collections spaces has also unlocked a grand hall.

The architect, in close collaboration with the client, has allowed the new architecture to emerge seamlessly from the existing as an integral yet individualistic part of the whole assembly and produced carefully crafted spaces.

Middleport Pottery, Stoke-on-Trent by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

RIBA Awards 2015: Cultural

RIBA Awards 2015: Cultural

Source: Tim Crocker

Middleport Pottery, Stoke-on-Trent by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Client The Prince’s Regeneration Trust
Contractor William Anelay
Contract value £6 million
Gross internal area 7,728m²
Region West Midlands

This is a refurbishment of an existing Grade II*-listed pottery, supported by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, creating education and exhibition facilities together with a café, shop and new business enterprises while retaining the working factory.

The architect’s meticulous programme allowed refurbishment to take place while the factory remained functioning. Thermal weaknesses were identified and improved, newly insulated roofs and windows were sensitively installed. Cobbles were relaid level to improve visitor access and a delightful quarry-tiled wheelchair lift was incorporated. The spaces throughout were lightly reworked to open up the ground floor to the public.

The project has clearly regenerated the area – a key briefing objective – and trebled the size of the workforce.

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