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Nottingham Contemporary by Caruso St John Architects

Nottingham Contemporary’s unified ‘lace’ covered facade hides a diverse interior. Photography by Hélène Binet

Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary is such an overwhelming assault on the ocular senses, I don’t quite know where to start. Would it be with the building’s decoration, its audacious flirtation with kitsch where a Nottingham lace pattern is applied to its concrete cladding? Or its mint and gold colour scheme? Or its topography, the way its section is built into a slope so steep it might have inspired a latter day John Lautner to design an East Midlands Chemosphere? Or perhaps its careful, art-friendly interiors? Or simply address the accusations, made by some, that this is just another unfriendly art bunker, insensitive to its Victorian neighbours?

A reason for this indecision is that the building itself is a composite of discreet decisions. For all that it presents itself as a unified piece on the exterior, it is striking for the discontinuities between inside and out, and between different elements. It is not like a stick of rock, the same all the way through, but leaves some things unresolved.

For a visitor to the city, the gallery first appears on a hill above the station. It is on a boundary where the compact urban centre unravels into infrastructure, where dense blocks of commercial buildings, punctuated with a church or two, give way to road intersections and elevated tram tracks. Positioned on the route into or out of town, it plays the role of a gatepost or a portal.

At this standpoint, the building looks important, but you’re not sure why. Its blocky shapes and repeating verticals make it stockade-like, and there’s no doubt this is something serious, but then its greenish pre-cast concrete and gold-top pieces and trimmings have a touch of ‘Vegas’ or ‘a 1950s American cinema feel’ as the architects put it.

To enter the art gallery, first you must ascend the slope up the building’s flank before you’re led clockwise around the exterior to edge nearer to the entrance. By then you will have discovered the concrete’s patterning. It doesn’t register at first, and next only as an inexplicable fuzz, but when you get closer, you see it is a lace pattern embedded in low relief in the concave concrete panels.

This pattern is intended to be a modern version of the intense and exquisite terracotta decoration that fills the spandrels of Louis Sullivan’s 1894 Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York state, a reference much-cited by Caruso St John. Vast effort and prototyping has gone into establishing the process and scale to produce the final result, which is formed in hard-latex moulds made from an MDF-positive carved by a milling machine using data from a lace sample scan.

‘We didn’t want a pop, Warhol facade,’ says Adam Caruso, and its effect is more like René Magritte, in those of the famous Belgian’s paintings where wood turns into stone, or flesh turns into sky. The architects’ efforts have been rewarded with a surface that really is lace-like and draws you in for closer examination: it looks soft, but you know it is hard. This ambiguity is crucial, as are the physicality and quality of the surface, as without these aspects, the direct reference to local industry would have looked like a cheap gesture.

You also pass a pre-existing piece of public space, a triangle of pavement containing the outdoor seats of a café, a tree and a little stone monument. The gallery offers a new wall to this place, with a window of cinemascope proportions, giving views into the exhibition space, and making a simple connection between the new civic building and the old civic place.

Then off the corner of the triangle, a paved terrace opens up. This terrace is intimate and nicely poised between possibilities. From here, broad steps take you back down the slope, but also under the shelter of a cantilever that the architects compare to a cinema marquee, where you can at last enter the gallery.

You are now at the summit of the site and on your journey from the train station, the building has been first an enigmatic object, then (as you rise the slope) an intriguing surface, then (after a right turn) a wall in a civic space, and then (after another right turn) an entrance. Locals have a more direct route from the city centre, but it is still a building that unfolds itself by degrees. Once through the front door, it becomes, unequivocally, an art gallery. A glass wall in a small lobby leads the eye straight into one of four exhibition galleries, which are entered from an understated reception area.

The galleries themselves, say the architects, are intended to create the ‘variety and specificity’ of found spaces, lofts and ex-factories, in a completely new building.

Citing Nottingham’s own history of artist-run spaces and relating it to that of New York, they also make a connection between the functional buildings of Nottingham’s Lace Market area and the cast-iron district of Manhattan. Taking all this together, Caruso St John wondered if there was ‘an opportunity to make art spaces that were unusually engaged with the cultural and topographical qualities of their site’.

It’s a fiction, of course. These are highly calculated, white-walled, top-lit galleries of a classical kind, but accidents of plan such as oblique walls arising from the site’s geometry are allowed to deflect their shapes. The placing of windows and a shift in ceiling height from 4.5m to 10m, also create planned interference. They don’t quite feel found, but they don’t feel as controlling as many new-build galleries either. It seems likely that they will adapt and respond to the many different types of temporary art exhibitions that will be held here.

The four galleries, placed on the same plane in a rough U-shape around the reception space, form a self-sufficient unit, a sort of Palladian bungalow heavily disguised by the wonky shapes of the site. But they also stand on top of two other floors with a staircase descending from the reception to the other levels. On the way, a big picture window opens a view from a half landing on to the outside steps, creating a nice reciprocity between internal and external movement.

In the lower floors, the idea of the faux found space is pursued more vigorously in a double-height room, its ceiling crammed with equipment, for performance, screenings and installations. Made of in-situ concrete, this material does the job of holding back the cliff against which the Nottingham Contemporary is built. The walls have a raw, un-designed feel, in the style of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

Throughout the building, there is also a running theme of exposing services, starting with a raw lump of plant on the otherwise immaculate roofscape and continuing with the omission of ceiling panels in the reception area allowing views of pipes and cables. These are wholly revealed in education spaces and administrative offices, in a naked, none-too-pretty form, making a striking contrast to the delicacy of the concrete lace.

Deep underground on the lowest floor is the café, which opens onto a second terrace, at which point you have undergone an intricate journey for what is a medium-sized building. On this outdoor terrace, the 800mm concrete panels take over again and the building regains its wholeness. But fresh in mind is an array of elements: the light, thin-walled, upper-floor galleries, the hefty concrete performance space, the exposed services and the staircase - as well as artist installations. In the bar, Matthew Brannon has added retro ’50s details and off the top-floor gallery, Pablo Bronstein has installed ornate cabinets from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, which will house ‘miniature collections’ of art works.

These elements are only loosely connected to each other and to the exterior, which functions like the smooth skin over a body of an array of internal organs and conduits. With some elements - the concrete panels, the upper-floor galleries - their quality as intensely designed made things predominates. With others - the concrete room, the exposed services - they are more like ideas that happen to acquire physicality.

The gallery’s disjunctions may seem like design flaws, but they serve a purpose. Rather than create an oppressive completeness, they leave spaces open and suggestive, to be completed by the art, the service of which is the purpose of the building. The building is sometimes experienced as a series of events, not completely unlike that of seeing one art work after another, rather than a single, orchestrated whole.

The building’s external consistency gives a licence to the internal diversity

Three comparisons can be made with other buildings, starting with James Stirling’s 1984 Stuttgart Staatsgalerie (AR December 1982, AR December 1984). Nottingham Contemporary, like Stuttgart, plays an external urban promenade against the fixed nature of the galleries, creating a relation between the moving and looking aspects of gallery-going. In both, the building’s external carapace is given a weight and presence that allows it to mediate between art and city, and the fixed and the moving. Stirling’s gallery was more monumental, while Caruso St John has taken more care with the exhibition spaces.

Next it can be compared with Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI in Rome, whose press view took place the day before Nottingham opened, causing a certain amount of shuffling of timetables among architecture groupies. Hadid and Caruso St John, architects with wildly different priorities, have tended to haunt each other in competitions - Hadid beat Caruso St John to the Rome job and vice versa in Nottingham.

In Rome, the drama of movement is all, with the building forming a stage set for its own performance of ramps, curves and balconies. The art, when it comes, will have to adapt. In Nottingham, the design is built around the display of art, with the flow of internal and external spaces pausing to make way for the more static set of galleries.

Lastly, there is Caruso St John’s own New Art Gallery in another Midlands town, Walsall, of 10 years ago. Walsall is smaller than Nottingham, but the architects’ gallery there is bigger. For these reasons and perhaps because it is later in their career, Nottingham Contemporary strives less hard to change the perception of an entire city. Rather, it adds a new dimension to its immediate location.

I’m not convinced by all the new gallery’s moves. The exposed-services theme doesn’t come off: a bit more cover-up would have been better. The upper-floor galleries are beautiful spaces, but their ceiling grids of roof lights and fluorescents are too anxious and, in fairly low-ceilinged galleries, can seem insistent.

The same architects’ Gagosian Gallery in London’s Kings Cross, with simpler ceilings and more ample spaces, is calmer. The downward journey of the internal staircase, after a promising start, becomes less interesting, while the stair could have been more fluent and composed without compromising the appealing looseness of the interior.

Yet what makes this building exceptional, is its sensitivity to the display of art and generosity towards the unknown future uses of the space, with a powerful architectonic quality.

The way the building is made, both brave and skilful, is the making of it. In particular, the aesthetically risky flutings in what should now be called lace-crete make this a building like no other in recent times. The exterior wall is a highly satisfying artefact.

The gallery is a subtle response to its location and it’s hard to believe that those who call it a bunker have seen the finished building. If its basic forms are blocky, the use of colour, detail and ornament, and its adaptations to the terrain, make it a work highly attuned to and inspired by its environment. It makes its setting different, but that’s what you expect of a new public building.

Architect Caruso St John Architects, London, UK
Structural engineer Arup, Elliott Wood (external works)
Services consultant Arup

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