Colchester, Essex. Oysters for lunch at firstsite, a new centre for the visual arts designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects. Opened on 25 September 2011, it is a great building with a fantastic level of high quality detail and the last of the Labour government grand projets taking art to the masses. These include The Public, West Bromwich; Turner Contemporary, Margate; Nottingham Contemporary; MIMA, Middlesbrough; and The Baltic, Gateshead, which find their own local levels of support and interest. firstsite emerged against partisan interests and some economic and architectural issues to find a rationale – part economic magnet, part cultural attraction, part missionary church for art.
The building is semi-circular or crescent shaped with a triple height volume and a floor space of 3,200 sq.metres with public services arranged sequentially – entrance and shop, 190-seat lecture theatre, galleries and education room and cafe/restaurant with terrace. It is an architectural space with large areas of the display area with curved and angled walls suitable only for film projections and conceptual ideas rather than old-fashioned pictures. A gold alloy roofed sceptred isle of art surrounded by a silver sea of potential sculpture park or 3-dimensional creative space, once the adjacent bus station has been relocated. While taking iconic architecture and the presentation of art to a new level in Colchester it would also make a perfect small presidential airport terminal somewhere like Costa Rica.
“The client wanted a sequence of spaces that were very different with different atmospheres. It’s a progression, a journey of discovery of different spaces as you move through the building. The most important part of the brief was that they wanted to stand out in some way from other arts centres. They have spent years building up their own identity and they wanted a building that showed that.” Rob Seymour, project architect, Rafael Viñoly Architects.
The opening exhibition was a varied cryptic-puzzle of relationships between gallery objects and artefacts that sets out the curatorial ambition. The exhibition rooms had an air of medical examination – minimally presented cubicles with very difficult art objects that needed a lot of explaining. Hence the giant education room with the keen presence of interpretation managers and a Learning Programme in the community.
Camulodunum (the pre-Roman name for Colchester, meaning fortress of the war god Camulos) celebrates the cultural and artistic heritage of the town and the region. Local historic material relating to Colchester’s town pageants were exhibited alongside a firstsite commissions project by Sarah Sabin. Of Gunpowder and Gold presented a scientific analysis of archeaological samples from the site. The exhibition includes works by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Grayson Perry, JMW Turner, Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, and four commissions by international contemporary artists: Michaela Eichwald (Germany), Aleksandra Mir (Poland/Sweden/USA), Karin Ruggaber (Germany/UK) and Danh Vo (Denmark/Vietnam). firstsite is also home to ESCALA, the Essex Collection of Art from Latin America. The only permanent work will be the Berryfield Roman Mosaic, dating from c.AD200, part of a floor of a Roman townhouse found on the site in 1923. Temporary and offsite projects include Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio, who have made Colchester Round, 6,000 CDs to be distributed free around Colchester with three crossover interpretations of songs by the heavy metal band Sanctorum; the Band of the Parachute Regiment and the world music ensemble Quire. Carlos Cruz-Diez is intervening with public crossings in sites around Colchester; and Simon Periton is currently investigating the history of silk production in Colchester.
The £16.5 million new building is the product of a strategic partnership between Arts Council England, East of England Development Agency, Essex County Council, Colchester Borough Council, the University of Essex and firstsite. firstsite is one of the partner organisations in the Plus Tate group, which also includes Nottingham Contemporary, Turner Contemporary in Margate, and The Hepworth Wakefield.
Rafael Viñoly was born in Uruguay and raised in Argentina. Among his most significant projects are the Tokyo International Forum; the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia; and Curve – a performing arts centre in Leicester. He recently completed the Master Plan for the Abu Dhabi Campus for New York University in the United Arab Emirates, the Carrasco International Airport in Montevideo, Uruguay, and is currently working on the 20 Fenchurch Street Tower in London, and the Edward M Kennedy Institute for the Senate in Boston, Massachusetts.
Images: Richard Bryant/Arcaidimages. cgi image: Hayes Davidson