Bricks • Mortar • Imagination • Words

Aspex/Gun Wharf Introduction

The Building

The Vulcan Building - the name is suggestive of the explosive potential of its original contents - is the former 19th century Grand Store House situated within Gun Wharf, a historic part of the Portsmouth docks. A scheduled ancient monument, the building was designed by Jacob Owen in 1814 and is one of the biggest such structures of its kind owned by the Board of Ordnance. The foundation stone for the two-storey red brick building was laid in 1811 and the last stone put in place in 1814. As it stands today, the building is a handsome affair, with 7 bay pedimented wings projecting forward, although these were damaged in the last war. The north wing was sadly demolished and replaced by a modern style building. Tuscan pilasters frame the central archway, and other pediments top the south and west fronts. The task facing Glenn Howells Architects was to provide new quarters for the Aspex Gallery, an enterprise established in 1981 by local artists who came together to secure an exhibition space and studios. The name 'Aspex' derives from the initials of Art Space Portsmouth Exhibitions. The focus of the Gallery has always been to show the work of new or emerging artists, often at a crucial stage in the development of their careers. As the Gallery itself declares, "the support of artists to achieve their aims and potential remains at the centre of our exhibition policy". Working closely with English Heritage, the conversion will be a contemporary insertion into the historic fabric of the building. Existing materials will be left exposed where possible with the new elements defined by simple and modern materials. The spaces have been organised to maintain the impressive volume of the existing space and to create a flexible solution. The Gallery is to be located in the ground floor of the building within a shell provided by Berkeley Homes, who are developing the rest of the building as residential accommodation.

The proposed Gallery space, which is due to open in 2006, is enormous, with 5 metre-high walls in which are set large 3 metre tall wooden framed sash windows. Its original textures are hard and well crafted, with cast-iron columns satisfying that post-industrial era fetish so beloved of cafes, galleries and loft apartments in so many of our inner city regions. The existing mezzanine has had to be partially restored and jacked up by half a metre to allow for sufficient headroom underneath. "The building steps down as you go in as the exterior level is higher, so we had to put in a new floor. The beauty of this is that you can therefore hide the under floor heating and dispense with radiators, which can be an eyesore on a gallery wall" explains team architect Richard Perry. "We want to clad the restored mezzanine, which will house offices and a meeting room, with white-backed glass that will be illuminated from within, providing a subtle glow into the Gallery. Our approach in general has been to respect the existing building while using a crisp palette of contemporary materials. The planners were initially keen to keep the huge existing doors in full use but we argued that this wasn't possible. So we intend to remove them from the hinges and bracket them against the entrance sidewalls and then insert new doors. This means that if they decide to change the doors back they can do so. It's about treating the redevelopment of this space as a continuing process". It's an approach not dissimilar to painting conservators, who, when restoring a damaged artwork, ensure that their interventions are both visible and removable at a later stage. Asked what the advantages are of working with a historic monument, Perry is clear: "it gives you spaces that most galleries wouldn't be able to afford and allows you flexibility to develop the brief. The building suggests what you do with it. A good example is the mezzanine. The building offers a sense of a found object. Such opportunities make you try harder but the results are rewarding".

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