Nottingham Contemporary was designed by the award winning architects Caruso St John, based in London’s East End. One inspiration was the surrounding Lace Market, specifically the bold, elegant design of the warehouses that serviced the city’s world famous trade in the 19th century. Artists’ uses of raw former warehouses spaces (e.g. In New York in the 70s and Berlin in the 90s) were also an inspiration for some of its internal spaces. Its irregular structure was created by maximising the use of the available land. The site is said to be oldest in the city – it was the site of a Saxon fort, a medieval Town Hall, and finally a late Victorian railway cutting. The steps at the side of the building have recreated a historic right of way.
At over 3,000 square metres, Nottingham Contemporary is one of the largest contemporary art centres in the UK. It has four galleries - lit by 132 skylights – a performance and film Space, a Learning room, The Study, The Shop and Café.Bar.Contemporary. The building appears larger on the inside than outside, since much of its north end is sunk into the sandstone cliff that runs the length of the city centre. At the same time it is a remarkably open building: large windows offer direct views from the street into the galleries, shop, café and offices.
“The immediate surprise is the exterior, the most representational of their buildings to date, clad in verdigris scalloped panels pre-cast with a traditional lace pattern, over a pre-cast terrazzo base and capped with bands of gold anodized aluminium. The source is Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo (near Caruso’s native Montreal), the colours a counter to Nottingham’s red brick. One top-lit steel-framed floor of galleries at the level of High Pavement floats over two sunken floors of overscaled concrete entirely filling the vertiginous site. It is a mix of delicate spaces, their roof lights based on those of Malmö’s Konsthall, with one that is quite brutal, using materials as found and exposed services.”
Elaine Harwood, Nottingham Pevsner Architectural Guides, Yale Books, 2008
“This is a terrific piece of work, fearless and subtle, with a refreshingly intelligent programme (shows are about ‘The Future under Communism’ or ‘Uneven Geographies’ rather than the customary sensationalist and / or patronizing fluff), which has, at least early on, attracted large crowds… The building steadfastly refuses the obvious… Walking in, around and through the place’s concrete surfaces, its patterns, colours and angles, I wonder if this might… be the first masterpiece of British architecture of the twenty-first century”.
Owen Hatherley ‘A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain’, Verso 2010
“Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary... which to my mind was easily the most accomplished public building realised in Britain over the last 12 months.
Less assured designers would have struggled to conjure anything remotely cohesive from the project’s sudden expressive shifts between the workaday and the highly ornamental, but this bouillabaisse of a project was put together with phenomenal wit and conviction.”
Nottingham Contemporary – A Landmark for the 21st Century
Nottinghamshire Magazine on 5th May 2010
“The site for the new building is in a part of central Nottingham called the Lace Market, whose history and built form has parallels with the cast iron district of New York, giving the Centre a loose cultural connection to its site. In our design, we set out to offer a wide range of interiors that will have the variety and specificity of the found spaces of a factory or warehouse, within a new building: rooms that will challenge the installation and production of contemporary art and offer new ways for performers and audiences to interact. The exterior of the Centre takes its inspiration from the amazing 19th century buildings of Nottingham, and in particular, from the impressive façades of the Lace Market.”
Caruso St John
"There is a band of buildings, skilful and brave in their design, that will feature prominently in future histories of current architecture. Some are world famous, some are hugely popular, some represent new ideas surfacing for the first time. All share the same badge of honour. They did not win the £20,000 Riba Stirling prize, the award for "the architects of the building which has made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year […]
This year some exceptional buildings haven't even made the shortlist, announced last week. One is the Nottingham Contemporary Art Centre by Caruso St John, a building that responds professionally to a demanding brief, budget and site. It is the work of client and architects who are both good and committed. Its galleries are scrupulously designed for the display of art. It deals beautifully with sloping terrain, allowing internal and external public routes to run through it. More than that, it tries something unusual, which is to see how ornament can be used on a modern building. It is clad in pale green concrete panels imprinted with lace patterns, creating a play of apparent lightness and actual heaviness.
Idea is translated into material, which is something architects should do. Nottingham Contemporary stands outside the usual run of decent-but-predictable modern architecture of which there is plenty. It is a public, civic building that makes a contribution to its city. It is an opportunity to recognise buildings north of Watford, which is something Stirling juries sometimes worry about, but the opportunity was not taken.
Rowan Moore, ‘The RIBA Stirling Prize 2010 is out and, as usual, the committee has missed some of the best candidates’, The Observer, 25 July 2010
…..At least one of these new spaces is more daring – Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary. What we have here is a series of curtly corrugated boxes stepping down a hill, whose green and gold concrete cladding is, now famously, dressed in lace patterns. Initially, this seems like one of those ubiquitous shallow gestures at contextualism (with the former lace mills nearby) which hide a slash and burn approach to urbanism. After its completion, several proposals for “doily” façades by lesser architects would follow, standard blocks overlaid by repeated images of some local talisman – a building proposed by Bond Bryan for Sheffield Hallam University would reduce this to farce, featuring a pattern of cutlery on its curtain walls.
Yet Nottingham Contemporary is harsher, more puzzling and oblique than anything else designed in this decade of competing egotistical icons, and the architects at Caruso St John, usually purveyors of a sober minimalism, seem almost ashamed of their directness, of the possibility they’d veered into kitsch. But the rippling colours and patterns of the façade are intriguing enough not to need a direct excuse, and in terms of its “meaning”, Nottingham Contemporary seems to signify something unexpected, something pointed. While the other schemes try to wipe out the past, creating grinningly jolly containers for a perpetual present, here we have a visual amalgam of nineteenth-century industry – intricate patterns, made by underpaid workers on the inhuman machines of the nearby mills – and the twenty-first century’s semi-automated, out-of-town industries, the non-aesthetic of containerisation and its windowless warehouses. It’s a return of the repressed, the mechanical, the far from creative processes that occur in a real docklands. It’s alone in daring to court such pessimistic associations, but it feels the least dated of all these new spaces.
Owen Hatherley, Jolly Containers for a Perpetual Present, Tate Etc.
Laura McLean-Ferris, Art Review, 17 November 2009, Nottingham Contemporary’s New Building
"This new art gallery is an extraordinary building. It has been highly praised by architectural critics and in the art world but its uncompromising and highly unusual design initially guaranteed a rough ride with public opinion.
One of the triumphs of the building is the finely cast fluted concrete panels. These were beautifully executed by the local firm Trent Concrete and demonstrate the possibilities of this material. The jade green of the concrete is subtle, subdued." Adrian Jones, Jones The Planner Blog
“Caruso St John have designed a building that belongs unequivocally to this century, but one that emerged from and responds to its geological and historical context: the irregular shape is formed by optimizing the footprint of the site while the solidity and partial ornamentation of its facades (specifically the lace pattern molded into the green panels) echoes the architectural heritage of the adjoining Lace Market. It is certainly a structure that turns heads, but it is not brand-like ‘starchitecture’ dropped onto a historical city centre without a thought for the environment it is changing: its efficient footprint and its subterranean levels mean it sits within the existing city skyline. In this sense Nottingham Contemporary bucks a trend in the recent regeneration-led museum-building boom. Ours is a building that is literally embedded in its site, a sandstone bluff running through Nottingham’s centre. It opens a new chapter on the history of a site whose former uses include the Saxon town hall and jail, and a Victorian railway tunnel active until the 1960s. Local allusions are mixed with specific influences from elsewhere, including the solid, yet ornamented exterior of Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo, the raw warehouses used by artists in the 70s in New York and the 90s in Berlin, and Klas Anshelm’s sky-lit spaces of Malmö Konsthall."
Alex Farquharson, Director Nottingham Contemporary ‘Then and Now’ from Histories of the Present, 2011
Nottingham Contemporary was designed by the award winning architects Caruso St John. They were inspired by the surrounding Lace Market, specifically the bold, elegant design of the warehouses that serviced the city’s world famous trade in the 19th century. Former warehouses in other cities have proved flexible and creative spaces for artists’ activities, as in 60s New York or 90s Berlin. Its unusual form is the outcome of building right to the edge of the irregular site (as a consequence, there is just one perfectly rectangular room in the building). Our building has been constructed from scratch on what is said to be the oldest site in the city, home to a Saxon fort, a medieval Town Hall, and finally a late Victorian railway cutting. The steps at the side of the building have recreated a historic right of way.
At 3,000 square metres, Nottingham Contemporary is one of the largest contemporary art centres in the UK. It has four galleries - lit by 132 skylights – a performance and film Space, a Learning room, The Study, The Shop and Café.Bar.Contemporary. The building appears larger on the inside than outside, since much of its north end is sunk into the sandstone cliff that runs the length of the city centre. At the same time the building is unusually transparent: large windows offer direct views from the street into the galleries, shop, café and offices.
The building is clad with panels embossed with a giant lace pattern, some up to 11 metres high.
Nottingham Contemporary’s lace depicts cherry blossom. The design was in a book of lace samples, placed in a time capsule by an unknown Victorian in 1847, and buried underneath the Nottingham Corporation Water Works where the main Marks & Spencers now stands. The lace came from the factory of Richard Birkin, one of the largest and most innovative lace producers. Birkin himself was three times Lord Mayor of Nottingham.
Our lace was labelled ‘Specimens of Machine Finished Laces made by Rd Birkin, Basford 1847’.Richard Birkin started his company in Nottingham in 1827 and it grew to be one of the largest and most innovative in the country – it only stopped making lace in 2004. Birkin’s initials can still be seen over the entrances to the family’s former lace warehouses on Broadway in the Lace Market. Richard Birkin was three times Lord Mayor of Nottingham.
Nottingham Contemporary is on the oldest site in Nottingham. It once housed cave dwellings, a Saxon fort, and a medieval town hall – before the Victorians swept all aside for a railway line. It is in the historic Lace Market, a showcase for a world famous fabric when technical innovation gave lace a mass market. A revolutionary concrete casting technique, carried out in Nottingham, has embossed a lace design into the building’s panels, some up to 11 metres high.
Nottingham Contemporary took three years to build, but its conception dates back to the early 90s, when a new building for contemporary art was originally proposed by Nottingham Trent University. Nottingham City Council, the building’s developers, took the idea forward, with the support of Arts Council England East Midlands. A Board was appointed in 2006 led by its current Chair Gary Smerdon-White. Funding for the building came from Arts Council England, Nottingham City Council, emda, the European Regional Development Fund, Greater Nottingham Partnership and a significant private donation. Alex Farquharson, Nottingham Contemporary’s first Director, was appointed in December 2006, moving to Nottingham in April 2007.
Nottingham Contemporary has a library of logos, designed by fifteen contemporary artists we admire and whose work relates to our future programme. They are:
Some of the logos have been incorporated into our building. Nottingham based artist S Mark Gubb scaled up his retro logo to create a US diner style neon sign that brightens the city’s night skyline and helps direct visitors to Café.Bar.Contemporary. You can rest on a bench which has Loris Gréaud’s logo embedded in it. Gréaud is a winner of the Prix Ricard SA, France’s equivalent of the Turner Prize, and the youngest artist ever to show his work in all the galleries of the of the celebrated Palais De Toyko in Paris. You may have encountered the zebras from Klaus Weber’s logo cantering around the city. They’ve made lots of new friends at children’s festivals this summer. Lucy Skaer, another of our logo artists, has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize 2009.