Part fortress – Part monastery clean lines secure best architecture prize at this year’s British Design Awards
The £35m Hepworth gallery designed by David Chipperfield Architects, the firm also behind the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate has won the top public voted award for best new building in Britain. Other projects from a shortlist included the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London. Simon Wallis, Director of the Hepworth Wakefield, said: “This is a fantastic achievement for the gallery and David Chipperfield Architects and our heartfelt thanks go to our voters, who have recognised the gallery and helped us to win this award.”
The art gallery is set on an industrial island in the River Calder and is even more cut off by a busy trunk road and 1960s bridge slicing past one end of its site. A working boatyard lies opposite, various fine but abandoned mill buildings are its neighbours. The centre of Wakefield is some distance away, and anyway the city loses out to nearby Leeds as the main regional centre. So David Chipperfield’s latest art gallery, the Hepworth Wakefield, has a job to do. This is the most down-at-heel of contexts. It was not previously any kind of ‘destination’, though the excellent nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park will bring passing cultural trade. Inevitably, this £35m project forms part of a regeneration plan for the riverside, so will become less isolated. But one can forgive Chipperfield for giving his building something of a fortified character. This, the largest all-new art museum to be built in Britain since Tate St Ives in the 1990s, is a modern version of a medieval bastide. The approach over a new ramp and bridge reinforces the sense of approaching a cultural citadel.
Its principal design move is very simple, and takes its cue from the nearby industrial buildings. Being river-related, they rise straight from the water’s edge, with no margin. Chipperfield had to argue hard for the same: the Calder is notorious for winter floods, and cascades over a large weir here right in front of the building. So there was a cost implication in engineering it to have its feet in surging water. But this also provided a compositional driver, as the site curves round the tailrace of the weir. Chipperfield adopted a design strategy that simultaneously deals with the site conditions and breaks down the bulk of the building. He makes a monolithic building appear to be a cluster of 10 smaller ones, rammed together hugger-mugger. Both the jagged perimeter wall and the jumbled roofscape play the game, with each implied mini-building accurately representing a space within what is effectively a pinwheel plan arranged around a central staircase and lift hall. These spaces are not orthogonal, but skewed. Walls are vertical and do not curve – Chipperfield is not Zaha Hadid – but the ceilings, of varying heights, frequently tilt in two dimensions. This is a hard way to do architecture, as Chipperfield cheerfully admits, because at design stage, any change in the form of one gallery impacted directly on all the others.
Compared to his relatively conventional regular monopitch design at the smaller Turner Contemporary in Margate, this is a building that is not afraid to be sculptural or, if you like, more romantic than rational. A famous model of the project carved from a single block of limestone reveals the intention, and as executed this feeling comes across successfully. It is made of in-situ poured concrete with a slight grey-purplish colour tint: the roofs, though of steel-truss construction, are finished externally in a concrete screed of the same colour and texture. What Chipperfield, backed all the way by the museum’s director Simon Wallis, has gone for here is something that tries to get away from the dead hand of the curatorially-driven neutral art-box. The skewing of the spaces, combined with the visual connections from room to room, create a sense of energy and movement. It is not extreme – the angle used throughout is something like 12.5 degrees – but, combined with the variation in ceiling heights and orientation, you get the right balance between homogeneity and variety.
Then there are the windows. As all designers of art galleries know, most curators do not like windows. They unbalance the light levels, distract attention from the art, and remove valuable hanging space. But Chipperfield wanted visitors to be able to orientate themselves – to the river, the spire of the city’s cathedral, even the surrounding urban grot. Moreover, (although there are conventional easel paintings in the museum’s fine collection) much of the work on display is free-standing sculpture. A lot is from the Hepworth-Nicholson-Moore era, with the rest being new work shown in temporary exhibitions. The walls, then, become less important for display than the floors. So Chipperfield introduces his large windows at key points, while making sure to provide full black-out as well – and in one case screening the window from the gallery behind with a built-in tall window seat, reminiscent of a settle. Even disregarding the windows, Chipperfield also avoids even light, bringing daylight in through toplight strips always set at one end of each gallery, seeing no reason why one part of each room should not be brighter than another – although again, dampers and blackout blinds, along with the artificial lighting system, provide the fallback if needed.
The reason for the museum’s existence is that sculptor Barbara Hepworth was born and raised in Wakefield, Henry Moore was from nearby Castleford, and the city has been collecting modern art – including theirs – on its own account over 80 years, plus 18th and 19th century works on paper. It now has a collection of some 6,000 works. The revelation here, however, is a separate collection of more than 40 works of Hepworth’s working models, often full-size, in plaster, aluminium and wood. Some of these were used to make the moulds to cast the finished works but – because they were worked on directly by the artist – have a different character. The centrepiece is a full-size prototype of Hepworth’s ‘Winged Figure’ commissioned by the John Lewis Partnership and installed on their Oxford Street store in London in 1963. Here it is seen to better advantage, placed in a shaft of daylight at one end of the longest and tallest gallery and – unlike in Oxford Street, where it is mounted high – you can walk right up to it and be enfolded by it. These models are a gift from the Hepworth family and along with the rest of the stock and loans from the Tate, they immediately set this gallery apart from the Turner Contemporary, which has no collection of its own. Here any temporary exhibition has to match up to the work of the mid-century greats. The opening show by Eva Rothschild is good, but rather shown up by the comparison.
The programme here, then, is rather similar in origin to that of Caruso St John’s Walsall Art Gallery (important civic collection in off-pitch location needing greater exposure), but achieved in a much more expansive layout. It is logical enough – public facilities including auditorium, cafe, education rooms and administrative offices downstairs, and the run of 10 galleries of various sizes upstairs.The feeling of overall solidity is heightened by the very thick walls between galleries – which act as the ‘servant spaces’ where the pipes, wires and air ducts go. Window openings are glazed flush on the outside walls, with deep internal reveals. Floors are of polished concrete, sliding into shadow gaps at the edges. The sense of the whole gallery being carved out of a single piece of material thus continues inside, though the ceilings with their lighting tracks are perhaps a little too fragile to complete the illusion.As always with Chipperfield, you are never far away from the monastery. The Hepworth duly provides its moments of contemplative calm, not only in the galleries (he talks of his offset top-lighting strips as yielding a ‘church light’) but also in the main entrance lobby and at the head of the stairs on the second floor.
The half-lining and balustrades to this stairwell provide one of the few moments of obvious cost-cutting to be found in the building. What looks at first glance like polished stone turns out to be a proprietary stained and polished MDF. The specially-commissioned signage graphics, in a font recalling 1930s typefaces, are positively reticent: apparently another battle won by the architect. The city council at first wanted much more assertive external signage, probably to announce the building more to passing traffic. You can argue this both ways: yes, the signage is all but invisible until you are close, but hang on, isn’t the building itself enough of an advertisement?Chipperfield likes to present himself as anti-icon, a champion of the Good Ordinary. This building is here to serve art, not dominate it, he says, and quotes the late art critic David Sylvester saying that ‘the artist has no greater enemy than the architect’. It’s not a funny shape for the sake of it, he argues, but a dialogue between internal and external form. This is a tenable position. To some extent, everything is generated by the height and presence of Hepworth’s Winged Figure: that is the maypole round which the rest of the museum dances. I felt that gallery could have been slightly taller still, to show the piece to full advantage, but that could have had severe repercussions in the overall interlocking composition.
Let’s be honest: no Chipperfield building is ever ordinary. Icons they may not be, but they all share a strangeness, a more or less alien quality. The Hepworth may respond to its context, but not in the way that conventional buildings do. From outside, this citadel is stubbornly, impermeably itself, inviting challenge. It eschews elegance for something stronger: raw power. Inside, it is a revelation, one fine space leading naturally to another in a masterly sequence, the work on show enhanced rather than overwhelmed. This is certainly one of the best new art galleries Britain has seen in decades. The Hepworth has attracted more than 250,000 visitors since its May opening. – Words Hugh Pearman RIBA Journal