The Hepworth art gallery in Wakefield was opened in May this year. We finally got round to visiting it yesterday. It’s the largest new gallery since Tate St Ives in 1993 and cost £35m to build. The local Labour Council of this rugby league loving, working class town hope that the project will help to regenerate a run-down area of the town centre – in the way the Guggenheim in Bilbao revitalised that industrial city. Unfortunately, given the economic situation and the way the Tory/Liberal coalition are viciously cutting back on public spending, it’s unlikely that we’ll see anything similar built for a long time. Culture for the masses isn’t seen as a priority for a government led by and serving the privileged elite.
The Hepworth was designed by David Chipperfield Architects, who were awarded the contract after winning a RIBA international competition launched by Wakefield Council. The design has met with some mixed reviews, particularly about its external appearance as it is constructed of grey pigmented concrete.
It was interesting to be able to see the building particularly after watching the third and final programme in the Channel 4 programme “The Secret Life of Buildings” last Monday. This episode considered buildings used for leisure, including museums and galleries, and one of the key points the presenter, Tom Dyckhoff, made, was that starting with the Guggenheim, museums are often designed as “individualistic, flashy, narcissistic icons” which are often not well suited to their purpose. In other words the “form” of the building is everything and the “function” is of lesser importance. The building itself becomes the work of art and the architect neglects the need for it to work as a successful space to display works of art.
For me a for a building design to be successful, it must first achieve its intended function and be attractive. Although not everyone may agree, I think Chipperfield’s Hepworth achieves both of these objectives.
Of course, modern architecture always has a mixed reception. So, not unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Hepworth’s design is not universally popular.
“Relentlessly grey – as though the image of the North isn’t grey enough already – it has been likened to a collection of sloping sheds, a bunker, a prison and a secret-police headquarters.” (Yorkshire Post)
However, with some possible reservations about the colour, I like it.
The design is relatively simple. There is very little in the way of ornamentation. It consists of ten interlinked, irregularly shaped and ridged boxes. The lines of the building are all straight – there are no curves, but it is not monotonous, The placing of the “boxes” break up structure and the roofs slope.
The exterior surfaces are grey with a purplish tinge. Its made of pigmented concrete in a return to the “Brutalism” of the 60’s and 70’s. Many of those buildings have not stood the test of time. Bare concrete does not always bear the ravages of the British climate, becoming stained and crumbling. One difference is that the earlier style was to use rough concrete surfaces, the Hepworth’s are smooth. I think that makes a big difference.
Although at the moment the surfaces are clean and pristine, we’ll have to see how well it lasts. I also worry about how long it will be before graffiti appears on the walls. I hope they’re easy to clean.
I wonder whether a lighter, more cheerful colour might have been more appropriate. Grey can be depressing. However, I didn’t find the colour unappealing even though it was rather a grey day when we visited. Surface colour changes with lighting conditions, and I’d like to see how it looked on one of those rare days when the skies are blue and the sun is shining.
The gallery sits on a bend of River Calder, next to a weir and it’s waterside setting enhances the building. This location has also helped to make the building “environmentally friendly” as the river’s flow has been utilised to provide the majority of the heating and cooling. The approach from the car-park (which is too small) is over a curving bridge which crosses the Calder and the initial view emphasises the jagged, angular design.
Overall, then, I found the building attractive – but what about how well it fulfils it’s function?
The entrance leads into a large, airy lobby. Off this there is the obligatory book shop and cafe, toilets, administrative offices and an educational room. A wide staircase leads up into the gallery space. There are a number of bright, white rooms, of various sizes and shapes determined by the individual trapezoid blocks. They are not simply cuboid, but many of them have sloping ceilings. The rooms were flooded with natural light from a number of large windows and from carefully placed skylights that create “wells” of light. I felt they were excellent spaces for displaying art. The windows allow views of the surroundings – not all of them attractive. But it is pleasant to look out over the river if the. A window has been provided on one side of the building to allow visitors to look out at the medieval Gothic Chantry chapel and the old medieval bridge over the Calder. It’s a pity that the ugly modern road bridge obstructs the view.
So for me, the building is a success. It works well as a gallery while being interesting and attractive. I expect I’ll be going back again to see exhibitions here again in the future. It will be interesting to see how the building stands the test of time.