Trail of the unexpected: Firstsite exhibition space, Colchester

The new space could put this part of Essex back on the map

The second half of the 20th century was unkind to Colchester. First it was obliterated in print by George Orwell, who had an atomic bomb destroy the Essex town in his most celebrated work, 1984. Then the planners arrived, and wrought some real damage. As in other English locations with deep Roman roots, such as Chester and Canterbury, they decided that the best way to improve the town was to build a ring road that claws deep into the civic fabric, allied with a bus station nudging against the ancient walls.

After such desecration, it is easy to conclude that Colchester has given up on tourism. The Cadogan Guide to England asserts that "despite a long history, its charm is confined to the High Street". At the top of this broad thoroughfare, a sign points the way to the Dutch Quarter. You might be tempted to follow the arrow, fondly imagining it will take you to the tangle of lanes created by craftsmen from the Netherlands who made Colchester a 17th-century centre of excellence for textiles. In fact, you will end up on Level 8 of the ugliest multi-storey car park in Essex (which, trust me, is saying a lot).

Somehow, Colchester managed to get itself twinned with the city of Avignon – the greatest glory of Provence. Les avignonnais must be baffled about how the marriage came to be arranged. Yet one of the most spectacular cases of mismatch in the annals of town twinning now looks a little less lopsided. The reason: the opening this week of Firstsite. This brave new structure transcends its utilitarian surroundings and seeks to become "a new social and cultural space for the East of England, taking you from Roman remains to very, very new work by living artists", according to the director, Kath Wood.

The Spanish city of Bilbao transformed its image thanks to what appeared to be a collection of offcuts from a Jumbo-jet factory, re-assembled in the shape of the Guggenheim Museum. Now Colchester hopes to repeat the trick, only with what look like gleaming copper remnants from the Guggenheim. The architect, Rafael Buñoly, has taken Colchester, architecturally, to places it has never been. He has coaxed the cladding – copper tempered with 3 per cent aluminium – into a flowing, golden crescent that juxtaposes itself between gardens and the ladies' toilet at the bus station. And bestows the town with a much-needed opportunity to shine, a chance taken up by many citizens on opening day last Sunday.

Firstsite's name reflects Colchester's status as the oldest recorded town in England, and the original Roman capital of Britannia. The centrepiece needs to be powerful to distract attention from all the shunting around in the adjacent bus station, and succeeds. Inside, the floor opens up to reveal the Berrylands mosaic.

This masterpiece, which once decorated the floor of a Roman townhouse, was discovered nearby but has never properly been shown to the public. Starting this week, every visitor has had the chance to be dazzled by the simple yet eloquent symbolism created a couple of millennia ago.

Andy Warhol's Oyster Stew can, part of his Campbell's soup series, was created only a couple of generations ago. What does this imported icon have to do with north-east Essex? The main ingredient. Ten miles away, the oyster beds of Mersea Island are among the richest in Britain.

Another artistic dimension that seems disconnected is a room full of 20th-century South American prints. These turn out to be from the University of Essex's vast collection of art from that region.

Throw in a trio of golden bicycles, a miscellany of municipal publications and a striking grove of palms created by Ai Wei Wei and there's a good chance your senses will be stretched.

Firstsite has imposed itself impressively on the map of Colchester. Can it help put Colchester back on the map of attractive towns to visit? Not quite in the same way that the bigger and costlier Guggenheim has done for Bilbao; unless I missed them, Colchester has no gorgeous main square in the old town lined with tapas bars nor a cathedral of heroic dimensions.

Yet artistically inclined visitors can now combine Firstsite with the bucolic charms of Dedham Vale and Flatford Mill. "Constable Country" lies about 20 miles north of Colchester, and remains unblighted by both reckless planning and atomic weapons.

Travel essentials: Colchester

* Firstsite (01206 577067; firstsite.uk.net) is a five-minute walk from Colchester Town station, which is served by trains from London Liverpool Street (faster services, and links from Norwich, use the town's North Station). The venue opens 9.30am-5pm daily except Sundays, admission free.

* To see the location on film, watch Simon Calder's latest travel video at independent.co.uk/firstsite

News
One Direction's Zayn Malik gazes at a bouquet of flowers in the 'Night Changes' music video
people
News
people
News
'Free the Nipple' film screening after party with We Are The XX, New York, America - 04 Feb 2014
news
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
    Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

    Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

    A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
    Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

    Election 2015

    Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May