A tour of the V&A's Sackler Centre with its architect, Christopher Bagot
Christopher Bagot, architect for The Sackler Centre at the V&A:
So from here, this is the first reception space and you can see that the staircase offers itself up straight away. The reception desk exists in two halves, the idea being that in the mornings there will quite often be quite large groups of school children attending but there will be other visitors, day to day visitors or visitors to events upstairs, who still want to access the reception so we thought that by having it in two halves we could have on that would deal with the school children and one would still be accessible for any other visitors.
We have got small niches here where you can access computer information, that can be used as waiting space when you have got large groups of people or in more relaxed times people can just go and hang out and access other information about the V&A.
The overriding material in the building is brickwork, this is something that we thought when we first moved in because the site was so dark and it had a very oppressive atmosphere, we were originally looking to paint the brickwork white because we were just obsessed about lighting up the space and making it as bright as we possibly could but we realised that once we did actually open it up and once we had the pale concrete floor that actually the brickwork is quite nice when you have something contrasting and so we kept that as a way of making it clearer what the construction of the original building is.
The colour scheme was loosely based on some landscape photographs that we took in the West Country of England as it happens but really I was trying to create a colour scheme that was appealing to all age groups. We wanted it to be a stimulating environment but we didn’t want it to be too much of a primary colour so a kids type of colour scheme, so green and grey and reddish tones for the brickwork seem to be quite a nice warm, comfortable colour palette. My theory with green is that whenever you use green you should always use several shades of green because I think whenever you have one shade of green it becomes a bit overwhelming but when there is a pattern and a texture to a green that works a bit better.
These big glazed screens are one of the main features of the project where we always knew that we wanted it to be a visually transparent and quite an open environment so that you could see the different activities going on in different spaces but at the same time for a lot of these activities you want to have quiet so that you don’t lose people’s attention so we had to have these custom made screens made where you have two sheets of glass but you have a very large air gap so it functions a lot better than a normal double glazed unit where you have half or three quarters of an inch, he we have 60 millimetres of air gap between the two panes of glass.
So [inaudible] and not thermal?
Yes, exactly. I think it works pretty well on the whole. So this is the lunch room which was primarily a space designed to accommodate large groups of school children who will be eating packed lunches that they bring to the centre in up to, I think, four sittings per lunch and I think we can accommodate around 200. Our solution was very much driven by the building that we had so the main solution for the storing of bags and coats were these big lockers that we built in the niches between the bits of structure. This is a design based on making things as simple as you possibly can so in the niche you have a big door, you open the door and you basically have some plywood shelves that you can just throw your bags into, scruff them up, big palette at the bottom to chuck things into and then coats that you hang on the inside of the door and hopefully that will accommodate pretty much a whole classroom’s worth of coats and bags. Then you close it, enter the code and you’re away.
This is the main practical studio space which was designed again as a fairly flexible space. There is a wide range of activities that go on here from jewellery making to life drawing to painting and sculptural workshops. Basically it is a robust environment, everything is made of solid things, the tables are solid oak, they are not veneer as with the benches. We’ve got some Corian sinks then the concrete floor so it is all meant to be able to take a bit of abuse but also to be a fairly comfortable room as well because of the proportions and the ceiling heights we get with a nice old building and the fact is that this has fairly good natural light as well. We have got two south facing windows here so it is a fairly bright space. Of course it is important that we have got all the visual links with the main circulation space as well so that people coming through the hallway, even if they don’t know what the centre is for, they can look in and see what activities are going on here.
A big part of the design of this room is to do with all of what you can’t see so we had a lot of time that we spent with the V&A working out all the different things that needed to be stored and I think one of the great benefits of this space compared to other facilities that were here previously is the fact that this is all to hand, you don’t have to go fishing around in distant storerooms to try and find what you need, you have got everything you need to hand. These doors aren’t just doors, this is pinboard material so can be used to pin up work and the idea is that the white door is a projection surface as well. The other big feature, we spent a lot of time working on the appropriate desk. An appropriate sink for the teaching space is something that people put a lot of work into, so you have got a double sink unit, enamelled sinks which are easy to clean and also goes up and down. It can be used by children of different age groups and wheelchair users, the sink can be adjusted. Everything you have in this room, almost the main material motives of the centre is the large battened ceiling which is part of the visual warmth to the space, a way of introducing colour and natural material character but also it works from an acoustic point of view, it has absorbing material in between the slats which soften the acoustic of the space.
Here you can see how it is actually quite hard to look into the digital studio. What we have done here is to make use of the large air gap in the piece of glass, I was trying to keep some visual transparency between the two spaces but not provide distracting views for people using the studio. We have strips of translucent film staggered on either side of the piece of glass so if you tried to look straight through you will just see film whereas if you look up at an angle or down at an angle, you can see the floor. So the idea is when you are walking through you get a sense of the transparency you get a sense of the transparency but when you are sat at eye level you can’t really be distracted. Again you have got a similar material colour, you have got the wood panelling that follows through, here it is used instead of being a ceiling softener it is used to disguise cupboards and doors so again all of the equipment that you need can be hidden out of view and locked away secure, so you can use the space for any other activity at the same time.
We did some consultation with school groups of different ages and part of the feedback was that people like seeing surprising design elements and they like toilets that aren’t entirely bland so we have got colour on the floor a rubber floor, then a fountain to wash your hands in, and some stainless steel vandal-proof urinals.
We have a selection of different furniture in the reception area including sofas by David Chipperfield, chairs by Ron Arad, a coffee table by BarberOsgerby and lounge chairs by Simon Pengelly. The staircase was designed to relate to the entrance so we wanted the staircase to begin here, facing the main route in, but at the same time we wanted to end up on access in the middle of the plan on the first floor and we wanted to provide a couple of good resting points half way up the staircase. That’s how we ended up with the staircase in this form. To achieve this it pretty much had to be concrete and we thought that was a good thing because it allows you to talk about and understand the construction and to demonstrate some of the different issues of concrete so we have got the smooth concrete which is formed with birch plywood panels on the supporting walls and we’ve got polished concrete on the treads and then on the underside we used board marked concrete we cut batons of wood in half to provide the staggered texture, partly to make it a more forgiving surface to pull because it is such a visible part of the design and we wanted it to look good, and also to tie it in with the light. It is almost all done with fluorescent light, this is the middle of a plan of a deep basement building so we really had to introduce quite a lot of artificial light to basically lighten the space and partly that is done by the batons which are surface mounted in the concrete and set into the timber ceiling, and quite a lot of the job as well is done by the underside of the concrete bridge linking the two sides of the upper floor, is entirely clad in polycarbonate which diffuses a line of fluorescent batons beyond, so effectively it is a light box, like an artificial sky in the basement.
A couple more visuals aids now. This is what used to be called the Beckman Room which was the main room on the first floor of this building and this was the only room which could accommodate a 140 seat auditorium that was required by the brief. At the same time, this was the only way you could circulate around the building, to go through this room from one side to the other, so we had to accommodate an auditorium plus accommodate the circulation. The way we came up with for doing that is effectively to build the auditorium inside, a room within a room. So you can see this is a construction photograph and this is showing the raking steel of the auditorium going in before the floor was taken out and that is the concrete slab being cast and then the floor was taken away to create the space for the staircase and this bridge link between the two sides. So the entrance to the auditorium is a concrete slab cantilevered out over the reception space downstairs and then we enter through sand loggers on the site. What’s nice here is that you see the timber ceiling materiality carries through and becomes the ceiling of the auditorium where it continues to perform its acoustic and lighting function. Also I think it gives the space a particular character which I think makes it feel quite a comfortable space to spend time in so the idea is that stage area of the room is the bit which is still framed by the existing, not ornate but sculpted interior with the mouldings and the arched [rhombus?], so that effectively forms a period stage and this is a contemporary rake of seating and acoustic ceiling and walls to enclose the space. The front two rows of seats are completely free standing so they can be either moved to the sides to create an in the round performance space or just taken away and stored next door.
This is one of the two main seminar rooms. This is the smaller seminar room and is one of the few spaces of the original building which has been pretty much left as it’s always been since the building was built. This is the originally proportioned room of seven and a half metres tall, I think it was originally a tutor’s room or something like that and now it is just a flexible space. You have got shelves round the edge so you can put display boards and a range of flexible furniture. Again you can see even the doors here have the thick air gap so it is quite high performance acoustic.
This is the main flexible temporary exhibition space which is what used to be the Ornament Gallery. Again it is quite similar to the original proportioned space, this seven and a half metre tall space, but what we did was we took out the floor which was at a high level with steps leading to it, we took out the whole floor and cast a new floor which is ramped between this level and the resident studios at the end so you can get wheelchair access to all parts of the centre.
This is a key part of the programme for the V&A was to be able to accommodate artists in residence so you have got two relatively modest rooms here which we pretty much just fitted out with a sink unit and some cupboard, the idea was that whoever moves in then bring whatever else they need to the space. So one of these residency studios is the same proportion as the seminar room at the other end so you can see it is a pretty good space for an artist studio, there is a lot of wall space to pin up on.
So this is where the tour is going to end, this is the other main seminar room which can accommodate between 60 and 70 people. It is a flexible space which is built, if you remember when I showed you that initial section drawing showing the new concrete frame that was built in the 70s to house the stores, this is what that concrete frame is so this is part of the building that used to house the lecture theatre when it was originally built which now has this seminar room and the stores above.