As the recession forces an end to the age of architecture built on excess, we should celebrate the austerity of Nottingham Contemporary
First impressions: crikey, itâ€™s austere. Nottingham Contemporary, the cityâ€™s long-awaited new modern art gallery, might well be roofed in gold and fringed in lace, but when you first spy it, turning the corner from Middle Pavement, youâ€™re greeted with a wall of precast concrete, tinted pale green (yes, green concrete) but precast concrete all the same. The local papers have called it a concrete bunker and on a drizzly Friday in November you can see why. This, ladies and gentlemen, is an anti-icon.
The times they are a-changinâ€™ in British architecture. You can sniff it in the air. Maybe itâ€™s the recession, not just because building projects are stalling â€” more because values are changing. Two years ago you could propose a revolving skyscraper bedecked in golden columns and purple unicorns and be taken halfway seriously. Now, like long-haul flying, architectural excess is sniffed at with a disdain approaching distaste. The icon project, while not quite dead (people will always want showbiz), is having a good lie down in the post-Noughties age. There is no more public or private money in the kitty for revolving skyscrapers, and Dubai is sooo 2005. The last of the big projects given cash before the lottery bodies pulled the plug on funding are completing â€” such as the Ashmolean Museum extension in Oxford, opened last week. Some have been glorious, others less so. But we shall not see their like again for a good long while. This is a time to take stock, pause, reassess. This is a time for change.
And taking change by the scruff of the neck is a whole new generation of architects, such as Caruso St John, of Nottingham Contemporary. I donâ€™t know what to call them. Anti-iconists? Yuck. â€œThe whisperers,â€ one critic suggests. â€œThe Puritans,â€ another says. The â€œNew Tweediesâ€, someone whispered to me, malevolently.
I came up with Radtrads â€” radical traditionalists â€” which doesnâ€™t quite do the job. Iâ€™ve heard this movement called the â€œNew Seriousnessâ€, which hardly trips off the tongue either. The generationâ€™s spiritual leader, the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, coined, half jokingly, â€œslow architectureâ€ when I met him three years ago. â€œLike slow food,â€ he clarified. It means tradition, but with a modern twist â€” think of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, not the Prince of Wales. Brick and stone, not glass and steel. Muted, not DayGlo colours. Paul Smith, not Jean Paul Gaultier.
Get the local reference? Subtle, eh? Slow architecture is all about the subtle local reference. A new building, you see, always has a problem. Itâ€™s new. It sticks out. Icon projects donâ€™t give a damn, sticking out farther, dazzling you with tricks. An anti-icon plays a more discreet game.
Slow architecture has been bubbling under for a decade, as a generation of architects interested in tradition and craft, Caruso St John, David Chipperfield, Tony Fretton, Sergison Bates and Eric Parry, emerged from beneath the vast hi-tech, high- modernist shadow of Norman Foster, Sir Richard Rogers and Will Alsop â€” more interested in buildings as machines â€” that has dominated British architecture since the 1960s. Slow architectureâ€™s penchant for solid, subtle buildings designed for the long term, not headlines, never found favour with the kind of new Labour PFI contractors who wanted (cheap) instant results for urban renaissance, or the kind of clients who wanted to make a big splash.
Now, perhaps, the weatherâ€™s changing in Britain. Already, in 2005, Alsop had half-jokingly proposed forming a â€œgangâ€ with like-minded icon-lovers to stop the rise of what he called â€œbeige architectureâ€. Nottinghamâ€™s city fathers thought they wanted an icon. After all, you donâ€™t get more iconic than contemporary art galleries: the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Tate Modern in London, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
But Caruso St John soon disabused them of that silly notion. â€œYou try and get to the root of what they mean. A Santiago Calatrava building, or something like that,â€ Adam Caruso says. â€œAnd then you try to explain maybe that isnâ€™t necessary.â€ Caruso does a nice line in polite disdain. Guess who came second in the design competition? Zaha Hadid. Caruso shivers at the thought.
â€œThe problem with those types of building is that they tend to be standoffish. They might feel shiny and new, but after five years buildings arenâ€™t new any more. After ten years they are getting on a bit, and after 25 years they are old, and I think you have to think about what the perception will be when itâ€™s old.
â€œOur practice is rather against that idea that you can put our building anywhere. We want to make buildings that are rooted and insinuate themselves into the site.â€
Caruso St Johnâ€™s building does not have the wow factor. For that they can be grateful. You have to take time over it. Yes, first impressions are austere. Then you start to notice things. For example, the way the building grows out of the landscape, hanging off the craggy hill of Nottinghamâ€™s old town â€” the Lace Market â€” as if just another chunk of rock. An icon would have competed with the spire of the Unitarian chapel next door, and the gentle crown of St Maryâ€™s Church. Nottingham Contemporary, though, hunkers down. It slots into the streetscape, its roofline meeting on one side Lace Marketâ€™s Victorian neighbours, on the other the arse end of the 1960s Broadmead Shopping Centre. Thatâ€™s some gap to bridge, but it bridges it magnificently.
Yet this is no shrinking violet. For a start, yes, it is roofed in gold and fringed in lace, the latter pattern, straight out of your grannyâ€™s sitting room, pressed into the faÃ§adeâ€™s precast concrete panels by students at the University of Derbyâ€™s textile department.
â€œItâ€™s our most Las Vegas building so far,â€ Caruso says. â€œIt was so dumb, this idea that you make a building with a lace faÃ§ade in the Lace Market, that it is probably the right thing to do ... so direct.â€
The firm has been studying decoration on buildings for some time. Its extension to the V&Aâ€™s Museum of Childhood, East London, revived Victorian polychromy. Start staring at the building and beyond the obvious, the lace, you begin to peel back the layers. The austerity, for instance, and the vertical rhythm of the concrete panels nod to the Lace Marketâ€™s Victorian warehouses, and, in part, says Caruso, to the â€œfound spacesâ€ and lofts of 1960s New York, where the contemporary art world was born. But, just as the Victorians did, â€œyou have to add that little bit of luxuryâ€ to the industrial aesthetic. Caruso loves the way in which you can walk around the Lace Market and the buildingsâ€™ characters change as you approach and walk past. â€œThatâ€™s all part of a buildingâ€™s richness.â€ Walk down Weekday Cross and the huge windows cut into the gallery faÃ§ade draw you in like a shop window: art is right on the street, competing with happy hour at the next-door bars. Go in and the imprint of the site creates peculiarly shaped galleries. Caruso didnâ€™t want an abstract white cube but a space with character. It wonâ€™t suit all art.
The building feels as if itâ€™s going to age well, that itâ€™s going to develop a patina. So many recent British buildings look as if they have been knocked up like a shelving unit and wrapped in wallpaper. This one looks geological, as if itâ€™s here for eternity.
Time will tell..