there is something really enjoyable about visiting a new gallery, especially if it means getting to see a city which you have previously seen only from the train. or maybe from the station, as i reckon i’ve drank coffee there before, but that is another unfinished rhetorical conversation for my head. i had wanted to visit nottingham contemporary for a while, even though i didn’t really know that much about it. i had a vague memory of seeing an interesting piece about the gallery on the culture show, but beyond that there was nothing that could guide my steps as i jumped on the train from sheffield.
that big flashy sign up at the top of that page was the first sight i caught of the gallery, and i’ll admit it didn’t exactly set my heart racing – it isn’t a design rich logo now is it? however, this signpost stood at the top of a staircase which led down to the cafe terrace, which on the day i visited was bathed with mid-morning sunshine, the perfect place for a coffee before embarking on the gallery. first impressions were of interest at how the building worked. from this point, at the very bottom of the building and looking up, the gallery appeared to shoot straight up out of the land for three or four storeys, yet i knew full well that following the run of the street that the majority of the building was actually at street level. i love a building that gets you thinking about how it is put together before you’ve even started with it, much like other pieces of gallery as re-gen seem to work (the lowry and imperial war museum north in salford, the hepworth wakefield, the pompidou in paris).
so, a bit about the exterior before we head inside. the building is supposedly situated on the ‘oldest site in nottingham,’ formerly cave dwellings, a saxon fort, mediaeval town hall and victorian train line. seems like a contentious choice of wording, but at least it isn’t claiming a ‘quarter’ title. what is without doubt is that this area of the city was home to the lace trade, which is reflected in a lovely piece of cladding design by the architects caruso st john. the green/grey concrete moments which make up the majority of the exterior walls of the building have been cast imprinted with a lace design, which only becomes more interesting as you get closer to it. a fine start. coupled with the concrete walls, the building is topped off by gold-tinged aluminium towers, which seems a little distracting from the exterior (but come into their own once within the gallery). i spent quite some time walking round this building, up the steps, checking angles of reflection in windows, back down steps, following lines and generally marvelling at what has been achieved with a pretty small footprint.
moving inside (noting that there doesn’t really seem to be a front door when approaching from the train station end of the city, an urban planner’s nightmare surely?) the building blocks of the gallery emerge, and what a surprise they are exposed concrete. which i really like. i’m unapologetic about how much i like concrete as a building material when it is well used, which it really is here. the staircase leading up from the cafe/studio space, past the admin offices up to the gallery/street level is all straight, heavy blocks, and really shows off quite how tall this building is. whereas david chipperfield galleries leave the concrete on show outside, here the structure is used to emphasis the site, reinforcing ideas about how this gallery is fitting into the city. yet the best is still to come.
those aluminium towers that look a bit plonked on from the outside actually provide the stunning lighting for the gallery spaces, tempered through delightful use of angles and colour washes, to create spaces which feel so so full of air and light. admittedly, i was there on one of the sunniest days of the year, so had the kind of experience which the architects dreamed of, but my did it work. that said, these skylights didn’t have to be the focus, and as a flexible use building they can be blocked out when displaying sensitive work, as they are for the alfred kubin display. alongside this natural light from above, both gallery spaces which touch the street feature huge picture frame windows, which place the street within the gallery, and more interestingly the gallery within the street scene.
it is this placing of the gallery within the city which is the unquestionable highlight for me. i’ll admit that my knowledge of nottingham is restricted to robin hood, brian clough, stuart pearce and the mid-90s forest team, alan sillitoe and the pop fest (which i still haven’t been to yet), but i’m guessing that the arrival of a contemporary art gallery which looks out to the city as much as it does at artistic influences was a bit of a shot in the creative arm. with a really interesting exhibition programme, including the current pairing of francis upritchard’s odd figures with kubin’s disturbing images and the ‘star city: the future under communism‘ exhibition of 2010 (which i nearly bought all the postcards from on this visit – stunning design), nottingham contemporary is presenting intellectually challenging work within a fantastic space, which is underpinned by windows and gallery spaces which work to draw the people of the city in. on the way back to the station at the end of my trip i passed back through the gallery, finding the cafe just as busy with people grabbing a local real ale; i really do hope that this is a sign of the place which the gallery sits in the city, a mixed use resource encompassing culture, education and community.
the alfred kubin & francis upritchard exhibitions are on display until 30th september. the gallery is about five minutes walk from nottingham train station. if you are planning a visit, i can also fully endorse a wander to the malt cross, a terrific ale pub in a converted music hall.