“This is certainly one of the best new art galleries Britain has seen in decades.”
In 2003 Wakefield Council launched a RIBA international competition to find an architect to design a new art gallery for Wakefield. The competition led to the selection of David Chipperfield as architect. David Chipperfield has won numerous awards, including the 2011 Royal Gold Medal and 2007 RIBA Stirling Prize – the highest honours in UK architecture - and the Mies van der Rohe Award in 2011. Chipperfield heads one of the most important architectural practices working internationally today. His restrained, thoughtful style of architecture has proved most successful on the continent, with three important new buildings in Germany: the Museum Folkwang in Essen, the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach-am-Neckar and the Neues Museum in Berlin, which has been sensitively restored after being bombed during the Second World War. The practice has completed projects in the USA, Asia and Europe. Two major projects designed by Chipperfield will open in the UK this year, The Hepworth Wakefield and Turner Contemporary in Margate, which opened in April 2010.
In designing The Hepworth Wakefield, David Chipperfield Architects responded imaginatively to the gallery’s waterfront setting. The building complements the scale and form of the existing industrial buildings and, like them, appears to rise out of the River Calder. The gallery’s location on the river’s edge also allows it to apply new forms of renewable energy by sourcing the majority of its heating and cooling from the river’s flow. The gallery’s façade has been constructed of pigmented concrete which was created in-situ. This gives the building a sculptural appearance, which echoes the shapes and forms in many of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures.
We spoke to David Chipperfield about The Hepworth Wakefield:
What was your inspiration for the designing The Hepworth Wakefield?
David Chipperfield: Our starting point was Wakefield Art Gallery: the series of small domestic rooms used to display the city’s collection, while limiting for a public gallery, nevertheless provided a natural, intimate context that suited the small scale nature of much of the existing collection. This interested us.
By considering a new home for the collection we were then led to a proposal for an internal sequence of rooms of varying sizes to house the collection and the other public spaces. While maintaining a consistent character, these rooms would differ in their proportion and the location of their openings; roof lights for natural light and side windows would provide views and orientation to the outside.
Was the introduction of natural light into the galleries an important part of the design?
David Chipperfield: The demands placed on galleries in terms of the conservation of artwork displayed has in the past led to a kind of ‘black-box’ solution to gallery spaces which, although ideal for the conservation of artwork, is often less satisfactory for the visitor.
At The Hepworth Wakefield we have worked with the curators and the specialist consultants to improve on this response by looking at ways of introducing daylight into the gallery spaces which do not compromise the conservation conditions for the artworks on display.
Through careful consideration of the location and size of openings, we have been able to locate windows in the gallery spaces that orient the visitor and provide views outside to the river or to the garden. In addition we have created ‘slot lights’ in the gallery roof that allow controlled daylight into the galleries at high level, animating the gallery spaces without distracting the viewer from the artworks on display below.
You have designed buildings across the world, often in sensitive historic sites, what do you feel is special about the site in Wakefield? How has it influenced the design?
David Chipperfield: The context in which we build is always important to us. Architectural decisions cannot be made in isolation; instead we rely on a reading of context to inform our design proposals.
The headland setting at Wakefield interested us. The site is highly prominent with no ‘front’ or ‘back’. The surrounding industrial buildings, their scale and form and their sitting on the river’s edge, suggested a solution to the gallery’s massing and location. Organising the building in a series of smaller blocks of varying heights and roof pitches fitted the scale of the existing building and enabled the gallery to present a number of frontages onto the river and the adjacent buildings.
One question the team has often been asked is about the façade of the gallery. What led you to the choice of material?
David Chipperfield: The gallery façade is constructed of pigmented, in-situ concrete. The intention is to create a smooth, continuous finish that allows the natural material qualities give character to the overall appearance.
Concrete is an inherently strong, robust material which has for us positive associations with solidity and permanence. Casting it on site means we are able to create large monolithic walls and roofs that emphasise the geometric quality of the building. Adding pigment creates an unfamiliar appearance which we hope will be as interesting to look at close up as it will from a distance.
How does The Hepworth Wakefield fits with your design philosophy?
David Chipperfield: We are interested in developing building ideas that are unique to the particular conditions of the project, physical and organisational. The Hepworth has allowed us to explore the concept of clearly defined rooms for the art (with consideration to sequence, daylight, view) and for that composition of rooms to generate the external form of the building.
It is fundamental to our work that there is a strong relationship between the spatial internal experience of a building, the building form and the context surrounding the building. It is also our belief that architecture should be both familiar and unfamiliar, in other words that we must develop new architecture but it must carry formal ideas that respond to memory and experience.