Smithsons’ buildings for University of Bath, III

July 14, 2011

The Arts Barn

This science based university wanted to continue supporting music drama and arts activities which took place in an old undersized barn and its outbuilding. Smithsons by this time had some experience of drip-drip of funding and their proposals for a new building incorporating some existing buildings went for a very flexible approach with no less than 14 components building offering maximum flexibility for growth as funds became available. Unfortunately, the simple fact that funds quite often do not materialize for ages and the needs of the buildings change greatly meant that not one of these options was built apart from the first phase of this recreational building, a small performance auditorium at the east end of the campus was handed over to the university in 1990.

One part of the original Arts Barn and Smithsons multi-functional performance space continue to function despite very limited ancillary spaces essential to manage a multi-purpose space. Some of the original windows had to be blocked to create these essential areas to the detriment of the building and its use. There have been two unsuccessful architectural competitions, and one more is in offing, to enlarge and create an appropriate arts centre for this well used and flourishing art recreational building.

I must admit my own ignorance of influences of Hugo Haring on Smithsons till very recently, but this has been a key to understand a lot of things which begin to fall in right places. The development of a multi-functional performance spaces in Britain over last 50 years has produced some outstanding examples (Young Vic, Half Moon Theatre etc) but Alison Smithson’s structural mastery with a pristine timeless form, shunning all form making traps is a lesson I found a revelation.

 

The location of old Barn and the new auditorium was used by Smithsons to full advantage by forming an edge to a forecourt             situated to the east of  E6 acting as satellite or a gate house.

Peter Smithson wrote “ … the Art Barn …changes one’s perception of this space at the east end of the campus…the whole entrance side—suddenly, with one small intervention, seems like an old market square that can accept many different activities at many different times and seems perfectly suited to each; for example: first point of contact with the university community…student car boot sales…drive and ride for town festivals… students happenings… student rag assembly point… morris dancing… and so on.”

(Oh! How I would love to see students doing morris dancing here)

One must not be mislead by the simplicity of this building of sound construction using durable materials in a rectangular form. The simplicity of wall surfaces, both external and internal has been achieved by considerable hard work by architects and the  structural engineers. The load-bearing external cavity wall construction supporting an irregular plan form with twin gantries falling in one direction giving an asymmetrical section, relies heavily on lateral support offered by deep steel trusses, gantries and side galleries. A rather complicated system of vertical steel reinforcement rods in hollow concrete blocks filled with concrete at every fourth course and horizontal mesh steel in the coursing, in the areas where the supports were not available.

This seems to be in keeping with Smithsons constant experimenting with the building process resulting in thoroughly ‘conglomerate structure’ and alludes to Hugo Haring school of thought.

Another old theme of half complete building compared with a kind of ‘ruin in advance’ was also mentioned by Smithsons  “ …a place that can be walked through like a ruined abbey … like San Galgano, to name one sufficiently modest … columns standing bare; inside, outside, both seemingly pastoral and as one”. Unfortunately stainless steel has never made a good ruin, but good construction and a sensible location would at least ensure (I hope) that the building is incorporated in a future larger project. In a way I am relieved that Alison’s  ‘Hexenhaus’ like spidery cellular structures were never constructed as their scale, location and design seemed completely out of character with the ‘mat’ of original campus. These intrusions were very likely to be in the way of recently built huge expansion to sports facilities next to the Arts Barn and were very likely to face a ‘Robinhood’ like fate.

It takes a while for eyes to get used to severe reductive simplicity of visual language used in this structure, made more difficult by introduction of stainless steel fascias which stubbornly retain their hostile shine. The unexplained mysterious openings and ‘flashings’ still await any one of the 14 possible attachment of components which Alison Smithson designed in hope of future growth when the funds became available. The damage to a very tenderly and carefully designed building is difficult to assess when most of the major openings to the entrance lobby are blocked and storage facilities now clutter this (and external) space obliterating the vital source of light and views to the outside green space.

I am afraid that intrinsic qualities of this small but important building and its link with the historic continuity to the modern movement have failed to register with the lay public and architectural world in this country so far. I feel that the only chance of its survival in a meaningful way lies with an intelligent architect appointed to extend this facility. This well built, carefully positioned building can easily become an integral part of the proposals as originally envisaged by Alison Smithson. A good case can be made on economical grounds alone but please do not forget, the duty of teaching the architectural students being trained within yards of this ‘architectural history lesson’ would sooner or later come to realize the intentions of these great teachers and learn by experiencing and moving around this modest, subtle and a great little building.

The old b&w photos and information from AJs, 30 November 1983 and 16 January 1991.

Smithsons set on Flickr http; http://www.flickr.com/photos/iqbalaalam/sets/72157604409881882/

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