Firstsite: The only way is Essex

Damon Albarn's father was among those who fought for a new cultural centre in Colchester. The building will transform the arts in eastern England, says Jay Merrick

Wednesday 21 September 2011 11:14

When Colchester's Firstsite Visual Arts Centre opens on Sunday it will be the very last hurrah as far as major Lottery-funded fine arts buildings are concerned. Designed by an international superstar architect, the Uruguayan Rafael Viñoly, Firstsite illuminates the love-hate relationship that local people, and movers and shakers, have with projects like this.

It's a roll call of traumas: The Public in West Bromwich, designed by Will Alsop, Margate's Turner Contemporary and the Hepworth in Wakefield, both designed by David Chipperfield. And now Colchester's £25m golden architectural amulet or torc, resting inches above the remains of two Roman villas on a shelf of land overlooking the town's bus station. All of these projects have been characterised by long gestations, various kinds of political infighting, and messy births.

Until about two years ago, there were many reasons to assume that Firstsite was a goner,. From the outset, a small but determined group of objectors to the project, including the particularly vociferous local MP Bob Russell, did their best to scupper it on the grounds that the money could be better spent on something of greater local value.

Meanwhile, Colchester Borough Council became enmeshed in legal scuffles with Firstsite's contractors. And then, when the half-completed building was brought back from the brink of demolition, its final cost ballooned by 50 per cent.

The architecture of the building – and particularly its colour – has been cursed with nicknames: Essex Bling; the Golden Baguette, according to one local taxi driver. Even Rafael Viñoly refers to it, tenderly but not very wisely, as the Golden Banana.

How drearily trivial. The salient fact is that, of all the recent Lottery-funded art buildings, Firstsite is probably the most ambitious in terms of the range of art events and activities that it will house, and promote locally. The architecture does not have the stark formal clarity of Turner Contemporary, nor do its galleries come even close to matching the sublime spaces at the Hepworth. But Firstsite's art offer is more radically various.

This is not an art gallery with one or two "extra bits". It's a visual arts centre that multi-tasks very ambitiously. No single space, or use, completely dominates the building. The only clear-cut architectural move is the plan-form of the building, whose spinal curvature gives it a single continuous promenade space that stretches between the entrance area and the restaurant at the other end.

Apart from that volume, there is no sense of a hierarchy of Firstsite's functional spaces – the three art galleries, the education and meeting rooms, the auditorium, the artist-in-residence space, and the segment where Essex University's outstanding collection of South American art can be shown.

It's a mix that has grown out of a characterful local arts scene rooted in the foundation of the Colchester Arts Society by Essex-based artists including John Nash and Cedric Morris in 1946. A decade or so later, the local Victor Batte-Lay Trust's core collection of works by John Constable contributed to the founding of Firstsite's predecessor, the Minories Gallery, in 1956.

The problem with the Minories was not the art it showed, or the fact that George Melly got luridly naked there at one opening – or even that its garden was favoured for discreet al fresco sex. The rub was that the Minories radiated a faintly exclusive county-set vibe. And all the while, according to one of the important early agitators for Firstsite, Keith Albarn (father of rock star Damon and former head of Colchester's art school), there were hundreds of pro-am artists in the area, but no real recognition of them.

Albarn, along with Essex County Council's then deputy leader, Peter Martin, and the Arts Council's Andrea Stark, were among those crucial to kick-starting the Firstsite project. So too, of course, was Firstsite's director, Kath Wood. It was she who fought the hardest to give the building its range of functions; and it was she who had to duke it out with Viñoly to get what she wanted: "I'm sure there were times when he thought, oh God, it's that bloody woman from Essex again."

Wood's vision of what Firstsite could be – a building that could show high-profile modern art, have children milling around in its superbly appointed education space, and be the focal-point of multiple local art outreach projects – was hugely challenging. Viñoly graciously admits as much: "At the beginning, I don't think either of us knew exactly what the design could be."

Viñoly, incidentally, was the only architect shortlisted in the Firstsite design competition who dared to ignore the site specified in the design brief. He argued for a more elevated site on archaeologically sensitive ground, showing a shrewd logic in urban placemaking terms, and sheer cojones.

What Wood knew, meanwhile, was that there was an appetite for even the most challenging art in Colchester. Big shows by Antony Gormley and Louise Bourgeois attracted thousands. When Wood was appointed in 1994, Firstsite events at the Minories were attracting about 13,000 visitors a year. By 2007, the figure had risen to more than 80,000.

Even so, there was an intense extra pressure on the project: Firstsite was never meant to be an isolated, beam-me-down Lottery arts implant. The building was never just about Colchester, or even Essex. It was conceived as an entirely new model for arts-led urban regeneration in the east of England, and has quite explicitly paved the way for other new arts buildings in East Anglia such as DanceHouse in Ipswich, and the Hoffman Building at Snape Maltings.

But does Firstsite's architecture work? I don't think that question can be answered for at least a year, or even 18 months. This is a building whose success may ultimately render the architectural drama of its form irrelevant to the more important question of how it is used, and how many different kinds of activity it can harbour – or provoke.

There is certainly an unresolved tension between the apparently decisive formal sweep of the building, and the way the interior spaces are set out along the shorter inner arc of the building. Furthermore, Viñoly's decision to make the long, curving outer facade slope at an angle will make it difficult to present flat artworks on it. Yet that sweeping promenade space may turn out to be superb for big sculptures regardless – or even because – of that canted wall.

Much more so than at Turner Contemporary in Margate, or the Hepworth in Wakefield, the success of Firstsite will depend on the energies generated by curatorial experiment, and the extent to which local people feel the building is absolutely for them. There is no doubt that Firstsite's collage of purposes will be difficult to orchestrate. But what's wrong with that kind of difficulty?

There will be those who say Firstsite is attempting too much, and that its architecture – the whooshing, extrovert swerve of its form, the golden sheen of its skin – is too glibly impressive, a triumph of design over functional actuality. And those reservations are reasonable enough.

But they are overshadowed by a more important question. What if Firstsite, and its architecture, had attempted far too little when there was a real chance to create a place that was genuinely groundbreaking in the way it developed new kinds of regional audiences, and participants, for art? Kath Wood is an innovator, and I suspect she and her team will turn Viñoly's Golden Banana into something much meatier.

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