Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures are at home in a building that, like her, is interested in inducing repose and generating movement, says MJ Long.
In the eighteenth century, Wakefield was a significant port, where goods were transferred from seagoing ships to the narrowboats of the inland waterways. The new Hepworth Wakefield gallery is located at a sharp bend in the River Calder facing a boisterous weir. The site is separated from the town centre by a particularly ungraceful example of twentieth-century bypass, but it abuts a boatyard (long may it remain active), and is near an impressive range of nineteenth century mill buildings with their feet planted firmly in the river.
One of David Chipperfield’s masterstrokes was to follow their lead, and to plunge the facades facing the weir directly into the water. As a siting strategy, it is very powerful, and it avoids what would otherwise have been a narrow and meaningless fringe of landscape on the riverside. It is difficult to imagine how it survived the inevitable attacks of value engineering, but it is a brave and valuable move viewed from inside and out.
From early in the project, Chipperfield stated his intention to break down the scale of the building by fragmenting it into a number of separate volumes corresponding to gallery rooms on the interior. The design development then addressed the detailed issues raised by the relationship between interior volume and exterior sculptural shape, working within minimum and maximum gallery heights that vary by only 1.5 metres. It is a carefully modulated game, which leaves the external volumes clearly articulated, and the interior galleries subtly differentiated.
As Chipperfield says, this is basically a nineteenth-century gallery parti with people spaces on the ground floor and galleries above. Unlike his Turner gallery in Margate (AT217), these galleries are not primarily daylit: most rooms have a window to exploit the view, and a strip of skylight above a light shelf which makes the source of light somewhat mysterious. The atmosphere, at least with the skylights and windows in use, is lovely: varied in light level, but generally glowing with the sense that daylight is available. The daylight seems most successful where the skylight is at the higher end of the shallow pitched ceiling. Sets of blinds allow any gallery to be used for light-sensitive material. Lines of track at ceiling level give a cool rhythm to the spots required to light individual artworks. It is a relief to see a departure from the glaring bands of backlit fabric that have recently been used so much in galleries.
The mixture of top light, view, and spot is both lively and calm. The galleries manage to be both similar and different, and give real flexibility of use without sacrificing the ability of rooms to heighten their relationship to the artworks. The shaping of the rooms contributes significantly to this; they are all trapezoids, not rectangles. I was prepared to be irritated by the corners less than 90 degrees, but in fact the slight inflection has the effect of gently shifting the centre of gravity of each studio. Together with the placement of the doors between galleries, this produces a sort of spatial choreography that inflects one gallery to the next and avoids any sense of hermetic separation. It is, dare I say it, an organic proposition that works remarkably well. The galleries are not shaped in a self-indulgent way; this is an anatomical composition that establishes a graceful and coherent relationship between parts and whole.
The installation was nearing completion when I saw it. I was prepared (as a semi-resident of Cornwall) to think that the Hepworths really belonged in St Ives – after all, she did not live in Yorkshire after the age of about 17. But being in Wakefield, and looking again at Yorkshire, I was convinced that the rural-industrial landscape of the two counties had much in common, to say nothing of the vivid boniness of the landscape itself. It turns out to be quite refreshing to see Hepworth out of the St Ives context. The full-size maquettes, a gift from her family, are particularly poignant, because they are so immediate, and without the cool perfection that typifies her finished works. The gallery’s collections include much more than the Hepworths, but its name, and certainly the room filled with the maquettes, invite a focus on her presence there. One should be careful, I think, not to start making ties between the sculptural quality of the galleries and their specific contents. But it is interesting that Hepworth referred in her autobiography to her aim of ‘inducing repose and generating movement’, which is a pretty good description of the first-floor galleries.
Chipperfield’s use of material and colour is interesting. The decision to change the exterior material from precast to poured in place concrete was a good one, making the exterior more believable as a series of monoliths. The grey-tinted ‘self-compacting’ concrete works well, although the brownish bloom around the waterline, and the growth of green weed along it suggest a slight vulnerability that might become more obvious over time. The trouble taken with the roof detailing, using a stiff rolled sloping screed, dyed the same colour as the wall concrete and meeting the carefully designed hidden gutters, works well. The extract ventilation has all been concentrated over the roof of the central stair which is not visible from the surrounding site. In spite of all the care taken to keep the roofs clear though (or perhaps because of it), one is very aware of a fringe of fall restraint posts, ladder handrails and SVPs visible above the roofline from across the river.
Interior details and materials perhaps require more description. At gallery level, the grey polished screed works well with the simple planes of the white plasterboard walls. The air supply slot at floor level separates floor and wall and helps avoid the ‘Mrs Mop’ line risked by the fashion for skirting-less gallery walls. The workmanship at the junction between this floor-level slot and the solid planes at door openings is a bit ragged.
I found the ground floor less convincing. It is the natural home of the social activities for which close environmental control is not required. Perhaps to state a contrast with the upper floor, the walls are clad up to head height with dark grey MDF, and the fittings (reception desk, benches, and cafe servery) are black abstract rectangles. The troughs in the ceiling provide a rather glaring form of artificial light, and in some of the relatively deep spaces, with their dark walls, the windows are a source of uncomfortable glare at the narrow end. As always with Chipperfield, I was impressed by the coolness and level of abstraction of the details, but the overall effect is somewhat chilling.
It seems to me that he could have taken on the challenge of accommodating the social activities in this building with another layer of detail which in some way could provide opportunites for tactile pleasure and easier access to its visual principles. My enjoyment of his detailing at the Neues Museum in Berlin was partly due to the juxtaposition of his coolth with the occasional rolled moulding or groin vault or stretch of coloured tile from the original building.
Altogether, though, this is a fine building. Its slightly odd forms do not participate in the ‘why not?’ school of funny forms. They are not so much about what they look like as about what they are, and the struggle back and forth from interior to exterior imperatives has been fruitful and intelligent. This is an authentic building in which the idea has been clarified and intensified by insisting that it must stand up to the interrogation of interior against exterior, and that the structural independence of the blocks is maintained throughout. The fact that the external walls of the galleries are solid concrete while their internal walls are column structures tempts me to wonder whether the finish of the exterior walls of each gallery might be subtly different from the voluminous internal partitions. David Chipperfield would probably say that the integrity of the galleries as rooms is more important than such subtle distinctions, and he would probably be right. Certainly his judgment on such questions has proved itself in the clarity of the principal design decisions.
MJ Long is a director of Long & Kentish Architects, whose projects include the Jewish Museum in North London, the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth and the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. She has designed studios for artists including Frank Auerbach, RB Kitaj and Peter Blake, as detailed in her book Artists’ Studios (Black Dog).
Architect: David Chipperfield Architects; design team: David Chipperfield, Oliver Ulmer, Nick Hill, Kelvin Jones, Demian Erbar, Julie Bauer, Yael Brosilovski, Katrin Bruenjes, Jesús Donaire, Corina Ebeling, John Puttick, Claudia Faust, Jason Good, David Gutman, Victoria Jessen-Pike, Ilona Klockenbusch, Daniel Koo, Laurent Masmonteil, Hau Ming Tse, Stephen Molloy, Hiroshi Nagata, Anna Naumann, Sabine Piechotta, Dean Pike, Billy Prendergast, Declan Scullion, Pierre Swanepoel, Korinna Thielen, Steffi Wedde, Jose Bergua; landscape architect: Gross Max; structural, services and bridge engineer: Ramboll UK; lighting consultant: Arup; theatre consultant: Charcoalblue; acoustic consultant: Paul Gillieron Acoustic Design; fire consultant: Safe Consulting; security consultant: Arup; access consultant: Jane Toplis Associates; project management, qs: Turner & Townsend; main contractor: Laing O’Rourke Northern; fit-out contractor: Realm Projects; exhibition contractor: Wood Mitchell, Museums Technik; client: Wakefield Council.
AT219 June 2011 p82