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The Whitworth Art Gallery’s new designs

Jonathan Schofield looks at five proposals and falls in love with an underground design for the Whitworth Art Gallery extensions

Written by . Published on October 1st 2009.


The Whitworth Art Gallery’s new designs

The Whitworth Art Gallery in terms of architecture is all about the newer areas.

The hundred year old terracotta facade from JW Beaumont architects might be strong but it’s never beautiful. In certain lights the unforgiving frontage makes the place look like an Edwardian house of correction, where birching not art is common practice.

If Levete’s ideas were carried forward then the new galleries would be a destination for tourism in their own right. There’s magic in the way they meld the park and Manchester’s most progressive art institution. If architecture is allowed to thrill, then these thrill.

The interior of the Whitworth marks a complete change of mood. It is one of the great public areas from the 1960s to remain in the North West. It is everything Beaumont’s design isn’t: light, open, welcoming and perfectly tuned to the display of art. The floating mezzanine and the big windows letting Whitworth Park into the gallery, so to speak, are particularly inspired.

Richard Bickerdike who designed these interiors in two waves, 1963-4 and 1966-8 needs his name on a plaque in the building somewhere.

Another inspired individual is Maria Balshaw, one of the best art gallery directors in the country. Balshaw quickly noted when she took over at the Whitworth that the gallery, given its collection and her ambitious exhibition plans, needed more room to breathe, needed to open out further and reinforce its parkland situation.

A design competition was launched. Five practices were shortlisted and their ideas are currently on display. These were given the brief to beef up the storage areas, provide a big boost to gallery spaces and make sure they built upon Bickerdike’s work in developing the relationship between the park and the art gallery.

Three designs stood out on Confidential’s sneak preview this Monday. These came from Stanton Williams, Amanda Levete and Howarth Tompkins.

Stanton Williams design is made up of a sturdy wrap around existing galleries at the rear of the building. It’s handsome, tightly controlled with craft shown in the finish, especially the grey tiles or bricks used on the exterior. The Howarth Tompkins design has a much more ‘pop’ feel. They propose a linear heavily glazed extension into the park thus not only creating extra gallery space but creating a courtyard exhibition area between the additions and the older galleries.

But the winner for Confidential is......Amanda Levete.

This design puts the Whitworth literally inside the park. And under it. It’s surprising, delightful and fits the mood of the times - in this case the Gaia point of view - just as Bickerdike’s did in the sixties when open plan was all the rage. The proposals also recall the lovely landscaping outside Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art by Charles Jencks, although Levete's ideas don't encompass sinuous.

If Levete’s ideas were carried forward then the new galleries would be a destination for tourism in their own right. There’s magic in the way they meld the park and Manchester’s most progressive art institution. If architecture is allowed to thrill, then these thrill.

As for the final pair of the five entrants, they numb rather than excite. The Edward Cullinan design is fussy and messy, an ugly oval intrusion into park life, the MUMA design, aside from a nice (and that’s the word) raised glass cafe, pales compared to Levete’s inspiration.

A thing to remember here of course is that the most exciting designs don’t always win competitions, nor should they. Sometimes for sound principles of functionality a design becomes unbuildable. A new structure has to be, as the cliché goes, ‘fit for purpose’ .

That may be the case here. But through the simple application of the ‘thrill’ test, Amanda Levete’s design wins easily. It also chimes well with the rhythm of Balshaw’s leadership of the gallery. The winning entry will be announced in November. Confidential is voting for Levete's.

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8 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Eddy RheadOctober 1st 2009.

Less of a correction my friend. More of a patronising observation.

Eddy RheadOctober 1st 2009.

ps. Stanton Williams in my opinion.

AnonymousOctober 1st 2009.

I think it's between Levete and MUMA. Not convinced by the others.

The Whalley RangerOctober 1st 2009.

Levete wins hands down.

EOctober 1st 2009.

For a second there I thought that you were going to say that they were knocking the current building down- I think it's beautiful! I love the terracotta- it feels so linked to the other buildings on the road, such a wonderful sense of coherance. I love that it feels a bit like an institution, when you walk in it feels like a place of learning (which I would say that it is). The only thing I don't love is that there are cycle paths right in front of the entrance which can be a bit awkward at times!

LeeOctober 1st 2009.

How can you not like the terracotta! as E said, it enhances and matches the other buildings along that part of the road, nothing wrong with that at all

Jonathan SchofieldOctober 1st 2009.

Eddy. Thank you for the correction.

Eddy RheadOctober 1st 2009.

Dear Mr Schofield you say "Richard Bickerdike who designed these interiors in two waves, 1963-4 and 1966-8 needs his name on a plaque in the building somewhere." Erm. There is. On the skirting board on the right hand side as you enter the 'new' gallery. Its difficult to notice but, like the place itself is cool and understated.

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