Striking and ingenious architecture is in Bath’s DNA – The Royal Crescent, the abbey and the Roman Baths are obvious examples, but how about something more modern, such as the new campus for Bath Spa University’s Schools of Art and Design? Simon Horsford investigates
Opening in late September, the sleek, low-rise, cream-coloured building on Locksbrook Road, beside the River Avon, cleverly repurposes the iconic Grade II listed former Herman Miller factory, which Historic England described as “an important early work by one of Britain’s foremost contemporary architects, and expresses many of the key features of the British High Tech Movement.”
When it was built in 1976 – with Herman Miller moving their European base across the river from their original site on the Lower Bristol Road (now home to Lidl) – it was groundbreaking. Architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw followed a tight remit from Max De Pree, CEO of the American furniture manufacturers. Grimshaw had told De Pree that we “must not foul up this wonderful city. You may own the property along the river, but you don’t own the river. Everyone who lives here has the right to enjoy that.” The American’s response was to provide what is now known as the philosophical ‘Bath Brief’, which asked that the building should “focus on people and human activity…encourage open community” and be designed as an adaptable and indeterminate space that can “change with grace”.
Grimshaw did all that and more with a building that, when it opened 43 years ago, was known for its gridded structure and a moveable system of fibreglass, louvres and glazing enabling the occupants to freely rearrange the position of the window and facade panels to suit their needs.
New and improved
The remodelling of the factory into Bath Spa University’s new Art and Design School, which began in January 2018, was undertaken once again by Grimshaw Architects and what’s more, it turns out that the original brief perfectly suited the needs of the schools of art and design too. Ben Heath, principal at the award-winning architecture firm, which is also involved in the refashioning of the Rec for Bath Rugby, says: “I have worked closely with Sir Nick on the redevelopment of the campus, and our hope for the new building is to offer an inspiring state-of-the-art environment for students.
“We have retained and built upon the original Herman Miller factory building’s principles of flexibility and adaptation with the key architectural elements such as the yellow beam superstructure and the completely demountable cladding system of fibreglass panels and glazing remaining the same, whereas the internal spaces are now fit for the needs of 21st-century learning.”
Dan Allen, head of the Bath School of Art, takes up the story. “This is quite an extraordinary building and one of the first industrial units to be modular where you have a large blank canvas – so it is adaptable. The factory has been at the heart of the community and I think there was a lot of sadness that the building has been a little unloved in recent years.” [Herman Miller moved from Bath to Chippenham some years ago and more recently to Melksham].
Meanwhile, Bath School of Design head Kerry Curtis, adds, “We always had an eye on the building but didn’t expect to get it. People have come up to me asking when it will open and can they see student work. To have something of an arts centre in Bath, which has been lacking, is very exciting, and although I wouldn’t want to undermine cultural places such as the Holburne Museum and the Victoria Art Gallery, this is a new space. For us, it’s a game-changer.”
And what a space it is – inside this large site there’s a rugged, industrial feel with those exposed steel girders, lots of concrete and distinctive original flooring. But it’s hugely contemporary too, highly sustainable and eco-friendly and with technical workshops surrounded by open, flexible studio spaces and numerous break-out areas giving the students the opportunity to work collaboratively; the ‘presentation space’ is fun too with bleacher-style seating. The ground floor is designed around more heavy-duty disciplines, such as metalwork and sculpture, while the mezzanine level will focus on fine arts. The building has also seen the creation of an opaque glass rooftop pavilion (with a balcony overlooking the river) to encourage co-operative working.
The building’s distinctiveness was something that the new owners were keen to retain. As Martin Crandon, projects manager at Bath Spa, says: “This remarkable industrial space has been celebrated in the redesign. Outside, the original 1970s wall panels have been cleaned, restored, insulated and repainted. Inside, the existing concrete flooring has been finished with a clear varnish seal so the history of the building, including trench marks, can clearly be seen underfoot, and the past can also be seen in the steel-work and colour scheme inside the building.” To maintain the link the schools have struck a deal with Herman Miller so that there will be a healthy selection of its furniture around the building.
We have retained and built upon the original Herman Miller factory building’s principals of flexibility and adaptation
To strengthen its credentials of being part of the community, the ground floor will house a café and an art shop, both open to the public. The new campus, therefore, offers the chance for the schools of art and design to be more proactively engaged in community life by opening up its resources to the public. The south side also has outside seating on a landscaped area adjacent to the river and the Bristol and Bath Railway Path.
Aside from the café and art shop, summer and evening classes will be a regular feature. Allen adds: “We want to connect to professionals by offering high-quality digital and photographic print production and there’ll be an art gallery showing student work and some extraordinary exhibitions.” One being discussed is to work with The Edge arts centre (at the University of Bath) on putting on a touring Hayward Gallery exhibition called Slow Painting in April 2020. “It will allow the community to be a living and breathing part of the building,” says Curtis.
Bath Spa University’s schools of art and design were based at Sion Hill with outlets at five other sites (Corsham Court, Palace Yard Mews, Dartmouth Avenue, the Circus and Newton Park). But the creation of the Locksbrook, which covers a sizeable floor area of 8,480 m2, will reduce this to just two with Sion Hill continuing as the home of fashion and textile classes; around 800 students will be based at the new campus. At a cost of around £36 million (including buying, renovating and fitting out), the Locksbrook Campus also compares favourably with art and design facilities at other universities,” says Crandon. The issues addressed during the construction process include planning permission for the river and canal corridor – habitat for many different bat species – and installing internal timber louvres on the windows so there is no excess light spill onto the river, the water’s edge and banks.
What the students need
What students need now and what they might need in the future has clearly been part of the thinking. “The new campus is an exciting opportunity to reflect on what art and design have been for us in recent years,” says Allen, “but also gives us a blank canvas to design a school that is going to serve the needs of students long into the future.
“We were actively involved with the architects throughout the project to help them understand our teaching practices and we spoke to students and graduates. It’s required us to think quite differently about the way we work and to challenge ourselves to design a campus that offers them a greater chance of working collaboratively, working across different disciplines and giving them spaces where they can come together.” The idea is that painters, fine artists, ceramicists, photographers, animators, furniture and product designers, digital animators, sculptors and the like can start talking and thinking and potentially working together. A blueprint then for what a creative educational space should look like. Allen, whose background is as a ceramicist, adds: “We believe passionately that students should be experts in their specialist areas, but also be exposed to creativity outside of that, and the campus has been designed to allow that, offering social and dynamic environments that we haven’t had before.”
Curtis, a former textile designer in the fashion industry, agrees: “There’s been a huge amount of research around ‘T-shaped students’, which means to survive and get good careers you need to understand and master your discipline and then understand and collaborate in other areas.”
Although Bath Spa University only gained university status in 2005, the Bath School of Art dates back to 1852. Esteemed alumni include Axel Sheffler (who illustrated the Gruffalo books), painter and printmaker Howard Hodgkin, sculptor Laura Ford, cinematographer Roger Deakins and the illustrator/artist Mr Bingo.
A new era
It seems appropriate then that the art and design schools should be taking over the building from a company long known for its creativity. Founded as the Star Furniture Company in 1905 in Zeeland, Michigan, Herman Miller is known for its iconic designs such as Eames, Mirra and Aeron chairs (the latter has been seen in TV shows such as Question Time and films like Casino Royale), Nelson Bubble lamps, and has been a trendsetter with a knack of recruiting trendsetting designers. They were also known for introducing the ‘Action Office’ in the early 1960s – flexible, semi-enclosed workspaces, now known as the cubicle.
The creative industries are part of a growing and buoyant industry in the south west, and we see Locksbrook as a hub for increasing that
“The creative industries are part of a growing and buoyant industry in the south-west,” says Curtis, “and we see Locksbrook as a hub for increasing that. The rooftop pavilion will provide a wonderful space to hire out to industry speakers and to liaise with creative industries. At the course level, we already have a lot of industry involvement and now we can take that to another level. We also have a course in furniture and product design that is a direct response to understanding how important this building is to us and it already has really strong links with Herman Miller. This region has lots of other great furniture makers and we think we can add something to that.”
Back in the 1970s when De Pree said “our goal is to make a contribution to the landscape of aesthetic and human value,” he may well have been talking about the opening of the Herman Miller factory, but his aim reflected the whole philosophy of his company. Nearly half a century later, these values look set to be continued at Bath Spa’s innovative art and design campus. And Locksbrook is definitely opening at an opportune moment. “We live in interesting times,” says Allen, “and there’s never been a time when we don’t need artists as provocateurs to challenge the way we see things and to question everything.”