Firstsite by Rafael Viñoly 27.02.12

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It's quite a garden shed. When the city of Colchester held its architectural competition for an arts centre in 2003, 
it wanted to replace an outdated and dismal bus station east of the city centre. But architect Rafael Viñoly didn't care for the site, and suggested that the council build on a neighbouring plot adjoining the 18th-century gardens of a derelict manor house. The council was convinced. Now open, the Firstsite building snakes around the bottom of the D-shaped garden of East Hill House, a golden semi-circle like a chunk of pineapple. Viñoly reaches for another fruit to describe it – "a large banana".

Clad in a copper-aluminium alloy called Tecu Gold, the £28m arts centre has a mixed programme. Viñoly says it is a "difficult animal to define – it's really an energy centre, in a way". Firstsite, a local contemporary arts organisation founded in 1994, takes the 
main gallery space. There are "laboratories" for artists, a 190-seat auditorium and a home for the University of Essex's outstanding collection of Latin American art. The building also shelters the Berryfield mosaic, a Roman artwork discovered on the site in 1923, and a restaurant called Musa – gardener's Latin for banana.

The larger site meant the building could be kept to a single storey and simplified, unlike the two- or three-storey proposals for the bus station.

"It seemed to me to be an obvious move," says Viñoly. "When you look at the [other] competition entries, they all seem cramped because they are cramped."

To simplify the interior, the main gallery doubles as the primary circulation space, taking up most of the outer edge of the curve. However, this means that the main display wall of the gallery is not only curved, but also slopes outwards, making it a challenging space to hang pictures. Viñoly simply dismisses this concern. "I think the slope of the wall isn't that critical to displaying large pieces," he says.

Internal walls are not fixed, so the gallery spaces can be re-configured – as Viñoly puts it, the building can become "whatever it 
wants to be ... Somehow usage will influence how the site develops," he says. "All of this could end up being changed dramatically." This is plausible, but means that at present Firstsite's galleries feel provosional or ad hoc, and the axis generated by the symmetrical house and garden is ignored. Perhaps Colchester will take on the protean space Viñoly has part-created and impose an order and meaning on it. And the gold cladding is endearingly wacky. "The thing most people ask is, 'Why is it gold?'," Viñoly says, "and there's no real answer to that."

So what's the unreal answer, I ask.

"Well, why not?"





Richard Bryant



William Wiles

quotes story

Internal walls are not fixed, so the gallery spaces can be re-configured. Somehow usage will influence how the site develops

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