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Power in Space

28 October 2011
by Evonne Mackenzie

The unusual Power in Space conference began with a whispered arrival at Bath Abbey during morning prayer as sun streamed through the windows and brightened the crisp morning.


The day shared perspectives on and experiences of, transforming historic buildings, whether through conversion, adaptation, temporary or permanent use, for a range of cultural activities such as performance and visual arts. This experience of bringing contemporary culture and life into existing and sometimes forgotten buildings is something where the UK has significant experience and expertise. International partners and colleagues at the British Council are often seeking UK architects, policymakers, clients and agencies with experience of successfully transforming buildings into popular new destinations to share their knowledge and experience, so this is a subject we’re closely interested in.


Tate Modern might be one of the most acclaimed examples of building re-use but Peter Wilson of LordCulture also discussed numerous other projects that he’d overseen during his years of working on the development of Tate buildings and facilities, including the Stirling extension to Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool.  Peter touched on the need for clients to articulate how a space will function, and that usually when the client’s response to this question is flexibility it’s a sign that they just aren’t able yet articulated the use. He also talked about how the more successful projects for contemporary art that he’d overseen had generally involved more stripping out than filling in. He said often the best results were those not dominated by services and facilities but those which instead worked to renew the space in a spirit as close as possible to the way it was originally conceived.

One great surprise from Peter’s talk was the revelation that the hugely successful Turbine hall space at the Tate Modern was not the result of foresight and vision, but rather a great example where an interim and unplanned use (it had been envisaged a second phase of development) has resulted in one of our most famous and successful contemporary cultural spaces.


Andy Hayles transported the audience away from art spaces to a series or meanwhile, found spaces that had been discovered and appropriated for the performing arts projects from the original Roundhouse temporary conversion to the Old Vic Tunnels, Almeida at Gainsborough and Almeida Kings Cross. Andy also discussed the connection between places and the theatre itself – citing site-specific theatre company Punchdrunk and their incredible ability to make us look at each other differently through a combination of place, space, performance and experience.


Andy concluded that the reason why people love these temporary venues and found spaces, results in part from their roughness, and their evocation of the illicit but also the joy and magic of finding somewhere unknown – both the director on discovering the space and the audience on entering it for the first time.


The first session of the morning was wrapped up by Chris Wise, one of the most engaging engineers, who shared his disappointment and frustration with existing building codes. Based upon a minimum performance standard these encourage an unfounded fear of some imagined disaster scenario. This in turn produces engineering solutions that demand excessive energy and materials to build. He talked of Bath Abbey and Salisbury Cathedrals examples of ambitious architecture that defies current building codes yet clearly meets needs. Chris called for a shift in mindset and code away from one of ‘let’s protect buildings’ toward a mindset of ‘let’s rejuvenate buildings’.


Other highlights of the day included the session which covered the perspective of the architects who are tasked with the creation of design solutions that respect the existing fabric of the building yet balance this with the contemporary functions and needs.


Eric Parry began with an articulate presentation of his sensitive work on the St Martin’s in The Fields project which was best summed up in his phrase that the building had been designed for the dead but was occupied by the living with the new design needing to accommodate the 80,000 people that visit St Martins every year from parishioners to visitors and homeless people to concert-goers.


Steve Tompkins then presented a fantastic selection of Haworth Tompkins projects for performing arts including the Almeida projects shown earlier in the day by Andy Hayles.


Steve talked through the complexity of their work for the Royal Court, an institution over which many feel ownership. The Young Vic project with its jumble of existing buildings and a sense that their design must still belong to the neighbourhood, including their decisions to retain the butchers shop and use a palette of cheaper materials.

Steve also cited a few projects, including the Young Vic, where construction wasn’t finished by the contractor, but instead by the theatre’s production team, leaving a different sense of the place combined and a sense of ownership among the building’s residents.

Snape Maltings offered a completely different environment in a rural setting, where the studio strove to be invisible in their interventions into the existing buildings.


Steve discussed their almost archaeological approach, where they work to reveal the palimpsest of stories left in a building through previous use and the importance of the in-between spaces in theatre buildings. Spaces such as entrances, lobbies and café spaces which help create the journey to the main auditorium space and build the sense of anticipation for visitors.


Roughness, minimum intervention, temporary experimentation and trial and imperfection were some of the recurring themes throughout the day. The prevailing impression I took from among all the speakers was their appreciation of what the existing buildings have to offer rather than the obstacles that they present when inhabiting these spaces for contemporary use.