Architecture | Greyed Out

David Chipperfield Architects’ The Hepworth Wakefield

Wakefield, North Yorkshire

For so many years overshadowed by her contemporary, friend and fellow sculptor, Henry Moore – also from this neck of the wood – it is only just and fitting that Barbara Hepworth has at last been honoured with an eponymously-named gallery in her home town of Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Previously, to see a decent-sized body of her oevre, it was necessary to trek all the way down to the little stone house in St Ives, Cornwall, where for much of her life she lived and worked, building a workshop at the rear and arranging favourite pieces in the modest walled garden. (See The Blog, Edges Rounded, Sharp Points Blunted, Friday, April 9th, 2010).

I had seen versions of 2011 RIBA prizewinners Chipperfield Architects’ proposals for the gallery building in maquette form at his formidable David Chipperfield Form Matters exhibition at London’s Design Museum in 2009. What resembled a modest settlement that might have grown organically over a period of time – built as dwellings or for related functional reasons – of blocky buildings with slanted rooves on the bank of a fast-flowing river that lapped against its foundations, the design of which had been rendered in thin, pale cream card and in pale wood. I was impressed and could not wait to see the finished thing.

Wakefield is trying hard to attract visitors. The new gallery is part of the same initiative as the newly-pedestrianised shopping areas and the once grey tower blocks now capped with ridged rooves and painted in jolly colours. I had not been before and found it a busy, optimistic and bustling town.

Even though, having done my homework, I knew already what to expect, it was quite a shock to be confronted by the flat, mid-grey gallery building, its blocky appearance broken only by the blurry joints of the concrete blocks used inits construction and the insertion of what at first sight appear as randomly-sized and randomly-positioned, black-framed, rectangular windows. The lightness, freshness and optimism of the maquettes is replaced by a brooding, uncompromisingly angular mass of tinted concrete which nods more than a little to the great Japanese minimalist architect, Tadao Ando. The weeping willows along the river bank might well weep. The saving grace, however, is Chipperfield’s elegant pedestrian bridge – which, presumably, because the gallery’s parking space is extremely limited, most visitors are expected to use as access – that stretches from the north side of the river over a gaggle of gaily painted boats to the gallery’s main entrance. Only from this aspect, despite its dour hue, the building beckons and looks approachable.

Inside it is almost a completely different story. The tall walls and ceilings of the gallery spaces are painted white. They flow easily into one another. Hepworth’s sculptures and the city’s collection of paintings are carefully sited to make good use of the natural light that enters via cleverly-designed slits at the edges of the ceilings. As well as bringing light inside the floor deep windows justify their positions by drawing visitors toward them – there is even a bench built into a grey felt-covered niche facing one of them that visitors queue to use.

The majority of Barbara Hepworth’s work can be described as curvy, organic and sensual. On leaving, I found myself wondering what she might have thought about David Chipperfield’s choice of colour and materials for the exterior of this building.

All photographs © Pedro Silmon, 2011. You can see more of my architecture, interior and garden photography at Arcaid Images

Have you been to see The Hepworth Wakefield?
What do you think of it?

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4 Responses to “Architecture | Greyed Out”

  1. Bill says:

    The exterior of this building does look very forbidding. I’ve not seen it for real yet and though I am a huge fan of David Chipperfield (loved the Rowing museum in Henley), like you, I expected to see a softer, less brutal exterior given the nature of Hepworth’s work. It looks more like a building to house Epstein or Serra’s sculptures.
    Do you think too many buildings these days are merely an outward expression of, and showcase for, the architect’s personality and ambition and aren’t enough about the content and purpose of the building?
    Perhaps it’s because we embrace an essentially ‘off the shelf’ culture these days, buying Architects’ (and artists) brand styles and thus allowing the new superrich to dominate culture. Or was it ever thus?

  2. PedroSilmon says:

    Bill, in response to your comment: a couple of quotes from Jonathan Glancey’s interview with David Chipperfield in the Wednesday 3rd February, 2010, Guardian on the occasion of the opening of Chipperfield Architects’ Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany.

    “Art has no greater enemy than the architect,” says Chipperfield. This, he adds with a smile, is a quote from the late great art critic David Sylvester.

    “In recent years, art galleries have tended to become freak shows. It’s been all about the wackiness of the buildings and not enough about the art,” continued the architect.

    Glancey writes that what riles Chipperfield is the ruthless commercialism that has taken over the construction process in recent years, leading to so many banal, cheapskate buildings, especially in Britain, where the aim seems to be to deliver as much covered space as possible on the cheap, rounded off with a headline-stealing roof. Bold yet graceful, full of impact yet ­devoid of tricks, Chipperfield’s architecture could point the way ahead in a new age of austerity, as we move away from the wily architectural excesses of the noughties.

    In the Sunday 6th February, 2011, Observer, Rowan Moore quotes Chipperfied as having made the sweeping generalisation: “Artists and museum people think it’s fantastic.” What about the rest of us? I ask.

  3. Bill says:

    Do you think the ‘inside/outside’ difference was deliberate? – I can’t imagine it being otherwise when a master like Chipperfield is in charge. Ted Hughes on the outside, Barbara Hepworth on the inside – quite a Yorkshire combination!

  4. PedroSilmon says:

    As with the course of both Hughes and Hepworth’s lives, I’m sure the road on projects such as this is a rocky one and not for the faint-hearted. The ‘inside/outside’ difference must have been deliberate but whoever made the decision, to my mind, made a tragic error.

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