David Chipperfield describes the Hepworth Wakefield as ‘dipping its toes in the water’. Photography by Paul Raftery
At first glance, Wakefield Waterfront, home to the city’s £35 million Hepworth Wakefield Gallery designed by David Chipperfield, could be the blueprint for Colin Rowe’s Collage City, a placewhere fragments of architecture and infrastructure from successive generations visibly clash and collide. There is the exquisite medieval Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott in 1839, and one of just four surviving chantry chapels in the country.
There are the handsome Victorian warehouses from the glory days of Wakefield’s industrial past and the River Calder, the vital transport route that fuelled the growth of the local textile industry. However, the successful Collage City derives its strength and texture not simply from the diversity of its constituent parts but from the extent to which layers of history cross-fertilise and overlap. Here the legacies from Wakefield’s former lives appear curiously disconnected.
Bereft of its commercial purpose, the River Calder has suffered decades of ignominy, largely forgotten and hidden from view. Stripped down and spruced up, the warehouses have been reborn as market-ready mixed-use real estate, an operation that, while commercially successful, has created an environment that is strangely sterile and self-contained. The Chantry Chapel exudes an air of quiet desperation, its mannered elegance perpetually taunted by the brute stupidity of the motorway slip-road bridge that leaves it stranded from its city. The site of the Hepworth, bounded by the River Calder on two sides, appears to be an awkward promontory, described by Chipperfield as ‘very exposed and three-dimensional, without a back but with fronts all around’.
The quest to create an architecture without hierarchy resulted in a cluster of 10 discrete but connected trapezoidal concrete blocks, each containing a single gallery space. The composition suggests a haphazard ease: a faux sang-froid that belies the angst it caused its architect. Chipperfield describes the design process as ‘fascinating and difficult… the challenge was to bring rigour to the complexity of the form so that it wouldn’t just be shape-making.’ He concedes, ‘It was an innocent enough idea but, to be honest, it was a nightmare. You need spaces that are interesting, but not too interesting. It’s important that the geometry doesn’t dominate the space.’
Each of the gallery blocks is different, but not too different, in terms of height, shape, size and, crucially, quality of light. Where many galleries insist on an even distribution of light, there is a play on light and shade that Chipperfield describes as ‘part of the humanity of the space’. The offset geometry and staggered doorways afford oblique views from gallery to gallery, or rather from artwork to artwork: the hope is that visitors will be drawn through the building by exhibits ‘beckoning’ from room to room.
Holding equal importance to these views through the building, are the generous views out to the city. It is, of course, impossible for a single building to stitch together an urban fabric that is hopelessly tattered and torn. But Chipperfield has done his damndest to bring the beauty that lies within the chaos more sharply into view. Weir and warehouses are isolated, celebrated and framed. The chapel - too small, too distant and too obscured by motorway traffic to be viewed in isolation - gets not only a window, but a window seat, as if to acknowledge that a true appreciation of its beauty requires an investment in concentration and time.
These floor-to-ceiling windows, made flush with the concrete facade, render the external appearance almost excessively sparse. Thecombination of a cheerfully mismatched roofscape and a super-pared down form creates a cartoon-like abstraction of a fortress town, displaying evidence of Chipperfield’s astonishing gift for creating forms that are at once figurative and abstract, playful and austere.
The impact is particularly dramatic at the point where the building meets the river, rising out of the water like a castle from a moat. Chipperfield describes the gallery as ‘dipping its toes in the water’, a metaphor that conveys the easy elegance of the gesture, but fails to do justice to its dramatic effect. In reality, the building ‘dips into’ not simply the River Calder, but one of its weirs; the angry churn of water crashing against concrete provides the perfect foil to the still serenity of the Hepworth’s silhouette. It is a truly sublime architectural moment. This may be a building with no ‘front’ but this river frontage is fast emerging as the quintessential picture postcard view.
It’s a rare treat indeed to see architecture and landscape blended to such dramatic effect. So it comes as a disappointment to discover that the swathe of open space that lies between the Hepworth and the Victorianwarehouses epitomises an approach to public realm best described as ‘don’t frighten the horses’. An orthogonal strip of freshly mown lawn, it provides an acceptable, if unimaginative,foreground to the rectilinear warehouses, but bears little relationship to the Hepworth itself in dividing, rather than uniting, these two different building types.
Its bland predictability is ironic, given that Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture has long since served to enliven Wakefield’s public realm. Visitors to the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park can enjoy the way the sculptures’ soaring loops and curves serve as frames for the rolling countryside, or see who can kick a ball through the middle of the nearest Henry Moore. Back in the day, local teenagers - myself included - spent lunch hours loitering on the paved square occupied by Hepworth’s The Family of Man, whose three abstract figures displayed a gawky angularity that provided the ideal cover to have a sneaky cigarette. The Family has been promoted from civic furniture to object of pilgrimage, relocated to a grassy promontory outside the Hepworth, where it can be admired but never touched. Which seems like a terrible shame. Hepworth’s work lends itself to an easy coexistence with its public. Its strength, tactility and scale invite its audience to lean and touch and climb.
In the AR’s online interview with Daniel Rosbottom (AR May 2011), Chipperfield is quoted as saying, ‘In my view, when you start designing a gallery, you have to start as you would with any other piece of architecture, by asking what is particular about the situation - either with regard to the collection or the society that it will sit within, or the building culture, for example.’ Wakefield’s particular relationship to its best-known sculptors can be observed in its no-nonsense tendency to view their work not as ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’, but as a vibrant part of the landscape and city.
The Hepworth is at its most powerful when its exhibits frame - or intrude upon - views of the city. The sadness is that you have to make a conscious effort to visit the building before such ‘incidental’ pleasures come to light. In Colin Rowe’s terms, it be infinitely preferable to let the work spill out of the gallery and across the city; one of many fragmented layers of history that give the city its texture and its moments of delight. The Hepworth would be far more powerful - more ‘of its place’ if it were less precious about its assets and more ballsy about its public realm.
Architect David Chipperfield Architects, London
Structural and services engineer Ramboll UK
Project management Turner & Townsend
Landscape architect Gross Max