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Firstsite Arts Centre, Colchester, UK

Issue 65 Feb / Mar 2012 : Retail : Museum

Architect: RAFAEL VINOLY Lighting Design: BDP

Clad entirely in a copper aluminium alloy - firstsite, a contemporary arts centre designed by Rafael Viñoly - shimmers day and night. The interior also shines thanks to a mixed artificial/daylighting scheme by BDP.

Firstsite is a new build contemporary visual arts complex in Colchester by the celebrated Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly. Completed this year, the 3,200sqm centre is a multi-functional space providing flexible exhibition and presentation spaces, a cafe restaurant, a 190 seat auditorium, conference facilities and meeting areas.

The centre is the first project to be completed as part of the Essex town’s larger St. Botolph’s Quarter masterplan and will be the anchor to what hopes to be a new cultural destination in this underused area of Colchester. Located upon Scheduled Ancient Monument Land, firstsite wraps around an eighteenth-century garden, engaging aesthetically and practically with the site’s axial and historic surroundings.

The crescent-shaped building is clad in a unique golden coloured copper-aluminium alloy creating a dramatic presence which hopes to draw in the crowds. The ‘wow factor’ continues inside with an imposing double-height entrance foyer that is flooded with daylight.

An interior promenade carries visitors from the vast entrance space through all areas of the complex, ending up at the café restaurant. The curved form of the building creates the sense of a journey that allows visitors to encounter and enjoy the artwork as they walk through. 
BDP provided artificial and daylight design for firstsite, fulfilling a brief that required the lighting to complement the building’s dramatic architectural form by creating inspiring beautiful spaces, day and night. The lighting also needed to be technically innovative and ultra flexible to work with the centre’s wide variety of activities and uses.

The project was hampered by funding delays and severe value engineering, the result is still something the community can be proud of as Mark Ridler, Lighting Director at BDP explains: “As firstsite has such a dramatic architectural presence in Colchester, the lighting had to enhance its night time visual identity and impact. Internally, the lighting concept was to articulate the building’s axial geometry with lines of cold cathode that provide ambient illumination softly washing walls and ceilings that support the sense of journey.

The lighting also had to be as low cost as possible. Therefore intelligent integration of low cost, energy efficient lamps, plus bespoke luminaire design determined the outcome of the artificial lighting scheme.”

Viñoly is well known for magnificently manipulating natural light within his buildings and as daylight consultants, BDP were able to help the architects analyse and sculpt the building in response to the need for natural light. The ingress of daylight and sunlight was carefully considered; walking the fine line between the benefits of natural light and that of conservation of potentially light sensitive artworks on display.

There is extensive natural lighting throughout the spaces – floor level window strips and clerestory windows provide diffuse natural light and ample north light to exhibits. Damaging sunlight is excluded passively by the building form except where desired, for example the café, entrance and education zones. Here sunlight makes a lively and dramatic contribution to the spaces where there is no requirement for additional blinds or sunlight amelioration.

Fenestration is placed to maximise views to and connections with surrounding landscape. Additional daylight is introduced to the southern promenade by use of floor level slit window with deep reveals excluding sunlight.

By co-ordinating south and north facing windows with space planning, the architecture has manipulated the variation ingress of natural light to levels and distributions appropriate to the functions and desired atmospheres of the space. Complementing the daylight, the artificial light fittings of the centre work in harmony, illuminating the lofty white spaces of the centre.

As natural light is the best resource and most faithful light to render artwork – working with an architect that is skilled and sympathetic to daylighting was a joy for BDP. As Mark Ridler says, “For us as lighting designers, it was a pleasure to work with architects and a design team that understand the importance of making the most of natural light through the form of a building.”

One of the first works to be installed at firstsite is a piece by the artist Simon Periton - a resin lamppost which is lit so it glows eerily at night. During the gestation of the building project, Periton worked with BDP to develop this new installation for the D-shaped garden.

The theatre’s architectural concept was born of an early lighting idea with lines of light integrated within and illuminating overlapping timber/acoustic planes. This combined with LED downlights and a simple theatrical rig allows for a variety of performance, events and teaching.
In the complex’s education room there is the BDP designed luminaire Skole in white and RGB that allows students to experience and understand additive and subtractive colour theory.

As the centre has no permanent collection (apart from the Berryfield Mosaic which is embedded in the floor), exhibitions at firstsite are temporary and constantly evolving, therefore the space required a very flexible lighting solution. During the design process the word “gallery” was actually outlawed to challenge the design team’s preconceptions of how to present art in all the unknown forms it may take in the future.

The ceilings are curved which denied the possibility of traditional track. Therefore BDP developed a bespoke jack point luminaire with three systems of mechanical retention (magnet, twist lock and pin). The fittings can pan and tilt lock, featuring integral potentiometer and mains dimmable transformer. Composed in a grid that can accommodate any requirement for wall washing, or accent to 2D or 3D artworks, the jack points disappear when not in use creating a clean ceiling.

The combination of ambient and the accent make the building glow with a beautiful balance of softness and drama with appropriate focus on the artworks. A control system also provides energy saving and different scenes that respond to daylight.

In its infancy, the non conformist nature of a building can attract visitors, but to be a success as a cultural destination it must continue to attract them year on year. By providing spaces that are capable of showcasing international contemporary talent, firstsite will hopefully continue to thrive and serve its community for years to come.

For BDP, to work on such a project, underpins the very ethos of their practice in ‘creating places for people’, as Ridler explains:
“It was a delight and a privilege to work on such a high profile project that will bring joy and culture to generations to come - from both the arts and the local communities.”


Pics: Sanna Fisher-Payne

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