Architecture: They're so Modern

Adam Caruso and Peter St John are about to put Walsall on the map with their innovative design for a new museum and art gallery. By Jonathan Glancey
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Here is a confession. I haven't been to Walsall since the Midlands town abandoned its trolley-buses. It seemed such a reactionary move, at the beginning of the Seventies, just when electric vehicles and the environment were being taken seriously.

Now I plan to go again, for the town has commissioned Caruso St John, one of the best young architectural practices in Britain, to design a replacement for its old museum and art gallery. Without doubt, the new building will be one of the finest of its kind in the country and will win Walsall new friends.

The only odd thing about the project is that the Caruso St John building will stand in what is effectively a new town square at one end of Walsall's principal street, hemmed in by two new supermarkets designed in "ye olde village" style.

Peter St John and Adam Caruso, however, are remarkably sanguine about their till-ringing neighbours. "What they'll do," says Canadian-born Caruso, "is to bring shoppers into the art gallery. The gallery will be at the centre of the town's everyday life and that can only be good for it. Usually, you expect galleries to be removed from high streets. This makes temples of them and makes them seem elitist, or at least removed from normal experience, even when those who run them are genuinely keen to open their doors to everyone."

"The supermarkets will also be a foil to the gallery," says St John. "I rather like the idea of a dialogue between them. What it means in practice is that people will do their shopping and then go for tea or coffee in the museum. The museum and gallery will be a place for everyone to meet rather than one that people have to make a special effort or bus ride to visit. In this sense the new building is truly civic."

Caruso St John beat off sophisticated rivals when they won the competition to design the new gallery. It is their first major building and it is an original. At first glance, the plans and elevations on the architects' Clerkenwell drawing-board appear to indicate a rather cool and detached building; in fact, you could imagine it to be as cold and white as a refrigerator. Nothing could be further from the truth. Caruso St John are particularly interesting young architects because they have been learning and now proving that rational Modern design need not be icy and chaste. Rather than being rendered white, the high walls of the new Walsall museum and art gallery will, most probably, be clad in terracotta tiles - not in imitation of theatrical late Victorian and Edwardian municipal facades, but in an original, yet warm manner. With walls of shimmering, probably bluey green, terracotta or faience, the new building will sparkle even on dull, damp mornings.

Thus clad, the gallery will be a gentle, if prominent feature on the Walsall skyline. The building's gentle and warm character will also be reflected in its plan and section, and in the arrangement of its galleries. Rather than a conventional hierarchy of rooms, in which one section of the museum takes priority over another, even weight has been given to the various sections of the museum. In this sense, the building will have more of a domestic than a monumental scale inside, which will be the right sort of foil to its eclectic collection of art and furniture. Galleries will feature windows framing views of Walsall to reinforce the domestic quality of the collection and each will be lit by daylight coming not from the roof (nor from fluorescent tubes), but from the sides of the building.

"The idea," says St John, "is to make the viewing of artworks here a very natural process, avoiding even light and making each room a calm space to be in."

The museum's permanent collection is based on 350 artworks - oils, watercolours, prints, drawings and sculpture - all of them figurative and given to the town by the late Kathleen Garman, wife of the famous sculptor Jacob Epstein. As such, it is one of the most accessible public collections of 20th-century art, based on portraiture of the human figure. Although the Garman collection has been on display in Walsall for many years now, relatively few outsiders have come to the Midlands to see it. When the Caruso St John museum and gallery opens in two years time, Peter Jenkinson, the curator behind the project, expects the number to rise significantly. Not only will the Garman collection be framed in one of the best new galleries in Britain, but it will be accompanied by the kind of touring exhibition one might expect to see at the Whitechapel Gallery in London or the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford.

Caruso and St John are beginning to ride the crest of a wave of their own making. The pair came to public attention two years ago when the house they built for Caruso in Highbury, north London, proved to be one of the most popular of all the buildings open to the public during Open House weekend, when members of the public were invited to visit architect-designed buildings not normally open to them.

The Caruso house was, and remains, a phenomenon; for just pounds 85,000 the architects had created a beautiful and distinctive small townhouse using substantial modern materials, yet eschewing conventional finishes and furnishings in order to keep costs down. The beauty of the house consists almost entirely of sunlight (or electric light) falling on the exposed raw building materials. What in less sensitive hands could have been an exercise in revived Brutalism, proved to be extraordinarily poetic. Poor Caruso (it was and is his home as well as the architects' first studio - they have since found office space elsewhere) had never expected to find a queue of architects and architecture buffs clutching their "Open Day" guides outside his front door.

Exquisite photographs (by Helene Binet) of this fascinating house appeared in the press and Caruso St John were commissioned soon after to convert a barn into a house. While the vast majority of barns are best left as barns, Caruso St John proved that it was possible to shape a Modern home from one without in any way taking away the rugged, elemental quality from the original structure.

In the meantime, a brand new house in rural Lincolnshire demonstrated that it was possible to design a home that was both rigorous in its architecture and yet acceptable to conservative planners. This may sound like a contradiction in terms; the trick was to take the outline forms of a workaday modern rural house (brick walls, pitched roofs and so on) and to quietly subvert them, so that what from a distance seems all very normal is distinctive and even radical close up, particularly the interiors.

"What we want to concentrate on is the construction of the buildings we do," says St John, "as well as their massing, proportion and so on. This means that we will never be able to work very fast nor to take on too much work at once. For the next two years we'll be working almost exclusively on Walsall. I think if you're lucky enough to win several commissions at once, but stretch your talent too far over too many buildings, each will suffer."

Curiously, although Caruso St John fit the bill of the clean- cut young Moderns in many ways, they have about them the air of Arts & Crafts architects of the turn of the century working in a Modern idiom; the Walsall museum and art gallery will be, in some ways, like one of those cossetting Edwardian galleries - all warm brick, marble, faience and terracotta - standing like guardian angels in the sweat-stained towns of industrial England. They are on to something: a determinedly Modern architecture that is as warm and as full of feeling for structure and the making of things as it is an intelligent and functional frame for the things we hold to be important in post-industrial Britain.

n Caruso St John will be presenting the designs of the new Walsall Art Gallery and Museum to local residents at The Crossing, St Paul's, Walsall, 2pm, Thursday