The city of Wakefield was once known for its coal and textile industries but these have long since gone, victims of the Thatcher government in the 1970s and 80s. Today it is best known as the hometown to one the most renowned British sculptors of the 20th century: Barbara Hepworth. A contemporary of Henry Moore, John Piper and Ben Nicholson, the work of Hepworth is celebrated in a new gallery that has recently opened in the place where she grew up. The new gallery relocates and expands the city’s existing art collection, providing a new home for work not just from Hepworth but other British and European artists – that puts Hepworth’s own work in context. One of the gallery spaces is devoted to a unique collection of plaster casts and other working materials that offers an insight into Barbara Hepworth’s working methods. Space is also provided for visiting shows and the gallery will commission work from younger artists, to show the continuing development of contemporary art. The gallery aims to provide a new social space within the city, which extends from new external spaces into the interior of the gallery. Public programmes of talks, lectures, film screenings, and tours are planned so that visitors can learn about art, architecture and design.
New art galleries and museums have become a mainstay of regeneration projects in recent years and examples proliferate across the world. The Hepworth at Wakefield is no different, with the David Chipperfield designed building anchoring the ‘Waterfront Wakefield’ development, although when the original RIBA international competition to find an Architect was held in 2003 the global landscape was obviously different. The gallery is likely to be one of the last of these projects in the UK but it is hoped that it will succeed where there have been so many public failures. Its success will undoubtedly be helped by the fact that entry is free, and it appears to have been embraced favourably by locals although the design of the gallery itself will also have a crucial role to play.
Located on a prominent position on the headland of the River Calder the Gallery sits in a conservation area that includes the 18th century Grade II* Listed Navigation Warehouse (recently restored by BDP) and the Grade II listed Phoenix and Rutland Mills complex. Bounded by water on two sides the gallery complex appears to rise out of the ground, a dynamic form that could have been sculpted from a geological formation. This comparison to a rock formation is reinforced through the materiality of the building, a pigmented purple-grey concrete (self-compacted and constructed insitu) and that the material continues onto the roof. There is an interesting dialectic between the building as an imitation of natural landscape and one that carefully responds to the scale and form of the vernacular warehouse ‘sheds’. Photographs of the gallery, which has been published extensively already, are often cropped to show its relationship to the river and vegetation, with little acknowledgement of its urban environment, particularly the busy road that runs past it.
Designed as a “conglomeration of differently sized trapezoidal blocks” (David Chipperfield Architects), each mass responds to the rooflines of the surrounding, small-scale industrial buildings, to create a series of pitched roof volumes. The building has no standard elevations because of the complex geometries and from certain viewpoints it is ‘compressed’, creating an aggressive form which, particularly on the approach from the new bridge, doesn’t easily identify its entrance. Each block forms a room on the inside of the gallery. The internal spaces have a domestic quality, inspired by the location’s original home – Wakefield Art Gallery – but the different proportions and scale of spaces creates a varied sequence of spaces. This sequence flows effortlessly form room to room so that, what on plan appears confused, allows visitors to move around freely in a loop. All of the galleries are located on the upper floor, with the other functions now required of a modern gallery (café, performance space, education workshops, administration), situated on the ground floor.
Natural light plays an important role in the gallery designs. ‘Slot lights’ in the gallery roof bring down natural light from the top but it is the large picture windows that are the most unique aspect of the galleries. Although not in every room (situated in 6 of the 10 galleries), these windows allow visitors to orientate themselves, with carefully selected, elevated views back over the city of Wakefield, the river and new garden areas. Often as you enter a room you are greeted with a picture window that will draw you across the room and at times this can be a distraction from the art work. Despite this, you are required to turn and move back through the space, and the art work, to continue your journey, and re-engage with the art. This is a gallery then that is equally about embracing the context of the surrounding city, not just about revering the art. What also sets the Hepworth apart from other recent galleries is how the architecture is not in conflict with the art work, neither dominates.
David Chipperfield talks about the gallery and his design philosophy in terms of both formal expressions, responding to “memory and experience” and that “architecture should be both familiar and unfamiliar” (speaking to the Hepworth Wakefield). At Hepworth the scale of the building is defined by the internal experiences, the memory of domestic space, creating a form that is bold, new but feels appropriate in its surroundings.
The gallery then oscillates between a number of conditions that are both complimentary and contrasting. Taken as an abstract structure it is both an imitation of the surrounding industrial buildings and a geological, natural formation. A solid construction method is punctured by controlled openings that allow soft, natural light to compliment the space without overwhelming the art work. Whilst the plan is executed rigorously to allow the space to make read internally, when it could so easily have be an exercise in wilful form-making.