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How construction must cope with the changing face of art

Modern art is influencing function and design. While I’m no art critic, I frequent galleries and have engineered a number during my career.

This dual experience of visitor and engineer has led to a keen insight into the shifting approach we now take to the art gallery, the growing complexity of its place in society, and the very different view the industry takes on designing and engineering them.

Until recently their primary function has been to hang pictures and house sculptures for the quiet gaze of the public. However, the expansion of what we view as art and a desire to broaden their appeal has seen some of the UK’s most prized art and cultural institutions rapidly grow in popularity.

The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester required extensive renovation to its 125 year-old building to deal with visitors almost double the expected 100,000, while the Tate Modern’s extension was a response to almost a tripling of visitor numbers to five million annually.

Responsive design

While the art is the real attraction, the buildings themselves must respond to visitor demands, not just in a three-dimensional sense but also in the fourth dimension of time.

The rapidly changing environment of modern art requires a level of dynamism and forethought to deliver a visitor experience where one can absorb and be immersed in the art on display.

“This has seen an increasing trend for long spans and a variety of spaces in the galleries we have engineered”

Galleries are now viewed as flexible and interactive civic spaces, intended to serve in a much more dynamic way, with performance and educational venues that provide as much cultural credit as the art itself.

This has seen an increasing trend for long spans and a variety of spaces in the galleries we have engineered.

The British Museum’s new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre had a 15 m excavation to accommodate the largest truck lift in Europe and the Tate Modern extension has two full floors dedicated to education, with space being made available for performance art.

Such trends are mirrored the world over, with Oslo’s new ‘all-arts’ gallery designed to be a dynamic arena for the general public to meet the visual arts.

New rules

The challenge for engineers is the need to apply an entirely fresh set of principles, which must depart from traditional ideas of a gallery to achieve bigger and more flexible spaces. In managing such projects, offsite manufacturing in a controlled environment is essential.

For example, the majority of the exposed elements of the Tate Modern extension were manufactured offsite and assembled in-situ. From the exposed precast concrete ceilings to the perimeter structure and 1,700 different windows, all were procured with a mantra to design for manufacture and assembly.

This flatpack approach is achievable even with buildings as unique and complex as Tate Modern’s extension, offering the necessary quality as well as significant advantages in managing cost-effectiveness.

Offsite manufacture and a liberal use of technology can be crucial, but we must also respect and understand a building’s original craft and the materials chosen.

This underpins the approach required to meet the changing face of galleries, creating spaces fit for their new public-focused purposes, and which not only house great works of art, but become great works of art themselves.

Martin Burden is a director at Ramboll

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