Project DescriptionFROM RIBA:
A project for all seasons, where art, nature and architecture combine - this could be the eulogy for a building which is neither high-key nor overtly fashionable, rather it is reminiscent of 1950s Aalto.
This extension to the extended 19th century Whitworth Gallery on the edge of Whitworth Park in Manchester builds on John Bickerdike’s 1960s work in a way that on entering seems subtle in the extreme but then gradually builds outwards in a sympathetic but entirely original way. The worst of the 1960s additions to the 19th century gallery, such as suspended ceilings, have been stripped out and earlier spatial relationships reinstated; the gallery now embraces the park. The café is both a pavilion in the park and a place from which to look back into the galleries. The structural stainless steel mullions of the new rear elevation and café both dissolve and reflect.
The scheme revises the basis of the environmental standards for exhibiting art with old and new galleries flexible enough to be black-box or allow daylight in. The environmental strategy is equally inventive taking a passive-first approach that has been delivered unobtrusively, with no exposed services whatsoever – a curator’s delight.
The creation of an elegant new basement collections space has also unlocked a grand hall which, with its near-criminal suspended ceiling and decoration, was the Whitworth’s big secret. It is now a lecture hall, education space and so much more, its timber trusses exposed, together with its Victorian grandeur, symptomatic of the way in which the architects have throughout unlocked a great old institution.
The importance of the role of Gallery Director Maria Balshaw, and of the University of Manchester as a whole, has been recognized in Whitworth being named Museum of the Year in 2015. Their brief allowed the architects the space they needed. They proceeded with great care, first re-landscaping the forecourt to provide a sculpture venue with almost imperceptible access ramping, through to the foyer leading to a Bickerdike-fitted cross-circulation gallery, and on to the main gallery where the removal of yet another suspended ceiling exposed the original barrel vault into which mechanical ventilation has been invisibly inserted. Then they created the archive store in the undercroft and extended out with a glazed cloister underneath providing study areas shaded with almost impossibly slender fins and above a new glazed corridor-cum-linear gallery linking the restored galleries and the new one which is highlighted above the north elevation and backlit at night to announce the gallery’s presence.
This is not just conversion or adaptation of the existing, the new architecture emerges quite seamlessly as an integral yet individualistic part of the whole assembly.