Colchester’s firstsite

The opening of a gallery is an exciting day for any contemporary art organization.┬á┬á Firstsite in Colchester, the site of Britain’s first Roman city, are no doubt to be congratulated on achieving such a large new space, designed by Rafael Vinoly, to support their exhibition programme. ┬áWhile the planning of the building astutely supports its programme, its object form is a one-liner which is variable in its success.

The entry facade is the strongest aspect. ┬áAn angled window wall reflects newcomers and firstsite’s past location, Minories Art Gallery, now home to the Colchester School of Art, Design and Media. ┬áThe cladding boldly frames this picture window, its overhang providing an enveloping appropriate for entry. ┬áThe actual entry though is less exciting, a glazed box, desiring invisibility. ┬áThe strength of the entry picture window is sadly compromised here.

The ┬ú16 million building’s plan is a fleshy arc. ┬áIts outer curve demonstrates the height of this bold gesture, the outer wall leaning outward as it curves. ┬áIts golden cladding though is uncomfortably surreal, the building as if still in its computer rendered stage. ┬áTime will no doubt bring a welcome softening to bear on its current visual harshness, though the 0.5mm copper alloy sheets are reputedly ┬áformulated to retain their golden glow.

I’m not a fan of the herringbone strategy which gives detail to the cladding. ┬áIt might be argued that it brings complexity to the singularity of the building’s form, but to me it undermines it. ┬áThis is most apparent on the inner most curve which resembles a line of sic-fi bathing sheds, a la “Red Dwarf,” or a camp of celestial garages.

The interior is slick, primarily white, of course, and, while an attempt to reflect the exterior occurs inside, the inevitable smaller boxes within the larger, more complex curvature sits awkwardly.  Because of this commitment to the gallery as white box, curators will find the spaces a pleasure rather than a challenge to exhibit in, relying on the art rather than its context to provoke.

Good on firstsite for achieving this ambitious project. ┬áThe architecture though is fine, rather than contemporary-art revolutionary, but it has already gained appreciation by the locals, among whom it is known as the “golden banana.”

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2 Responses to “Colchester’s firstsite”

  1. Guy says:

    Wow! That is indeed a golden banana! Very surreal indeed – and as you say, very like a computer render. You say it is a gallery – does it have anything inside it ? Or is it just pretty, vacant?

  2. Den says:

    Like its predecessor in NYC, it presents the gallery director with the interesting (some would say impractical) issue of placing flat works of art on curved and angled walls. Was the architect just trying to win the copper in architecture award do you think?