Bath Schools of Art and Design in Bath, UK by Grimshaw - International Burch University
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Bath Schools of Art and Design in Bath, UK by Grimshaw

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Bath Schools of Art and Design in Bath, UK by Grimshaw

AR New into Old 2021 Commended: Grimshaw’s new iteration of their earlier work builds in strong and subtle ways on the legacy of High-Tech

The ambitious battle cry ‘do more with less’ heralded the High-Tech movement in architecture. Technological and engineering advances were enabling new ways to construct buildings and new materials to do it. Steel, concrete and fibreglass brought the future to life, as glass skins could reveal the nuts and bolts of a building others had sought to conceal.

Taking its beginnings in the hyper-efficient geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller to create flexible and adaptable futures, a group of young British architects called time on Modernism. Walls became demountable, floors unobstructed by columns, ceilings adorned with services; truly the building had become the machine.

Representing the early spirit of this movement, Farrell/Grimshaw’s Herman Miller factory, completed in 1976 and formerly occupied by the US office furniture manufacturing company, is a discernible example of the style. In a light industrial area on the banks of the River Avon, the low-rise, unassuming factory is testament to a movement that produced architecture as an apparatus for its users.

With a simple steel frame, the single-storey building was clad with a series of interchangeable fibreglass panels, glazing and door units, which could be interchanged according to the needs of the factory. Entrances could be relocated, windows could become solid and the pattern of the facade rearranged.

Bath-Schools-of-Art-and-Design-by-Grimshaw-site-plan-223x300.gif
  • AR New into Old 2021 Commended: Grimshaw’s new iteration of their earlier work builds in strong and subtle ways on the legacy of High-Tech

The ambitious battle cry ‘do more with less’ heralded the High-Tech movement in architecture. Technological and engineering advances were enabling new ways to construct buildings and new materials to do it. Steel, concrete and fibreglass brought the future to life, as glass skins could reveal the nuts and bolts of a building others had sought to conceal.

Taking its beginnings in the hyper-efficient geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller to create flexible and adaptable futures, a group of young British architects called time on Modernism. Walls became demountable, floors unobstructed by columns, ceilings adorned with services; truly the building had become the machine.

Representing the early spirit of this movement, Farrell/Grimshaw’s Herman Miller factory, completed in 1976 and formerly occupied by the US office furniture manufacturing company, is a discernible example of the style. In a light industrial area on the banks of the River Avon, the low-rise, unassuming factory is testament to a movement that produced architecture as an apparatus for its users. With a simple steel frame, the single-storey building was clad with a series of interchangeable fibreglass panels, glazing and door units, which could be interchanged according to the needs of the factory. Entrances could be relocated, windows could become solid and the pattern of the facade rearranged.

In a city of unyielding Georgian crescents and grand colonnades, the panels, colour-matched to ubiquitous Bath stone, softened something altogether more radical. The large span of the steel structure created a single volume, originally dubbed the ‘super room’, which could absorb its original use as a factory and adapt to future needs and programmes.

Within it, the space could be continuously redrawn. The expansive glazed facade filled the factory floor with light, creating a better working environment for factory workers and keeping the space unrestricted for the future.

The grand High-Tech plans the factory was built upon later became tarnished: architects continued to do more with more. The continual maintenance and upkeep of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre, one of the era’s most celebrated buildings, has cost more than the initial build (AR March 2021).

When Buckminster Fuller visited Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, completed in 1978, as concerns grew about lightness and sustainability in architecture, he asked, ‘How much does your building weigh, Mr Foster?’ Eight years later, the practice completed the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank HQ, then the tallest building in Hong Kong and reportedly the most expensive building in the world.

Beige fibreglass panels making up the facade of the Bath Schools of Art and Design, formerly the Action Factory, are installed in 1976

As the UK’s oldest fibreglass building, its cladding panels, being installed here in 1976, are easily demountable and interchangeable

Credit:John Donat / Grimshaw

An architectural style based on a need to be flexible, so that architecture might touch the ground lightly, was corrupted by a need to dig deeper and build taller. The vast towers and open floor plans were embraced by corporate need, the gargantuan structures with colossal steel skeletons a far cry from High-Tech’s geodesic beginnings.

Farrell/Grimshaw’s factory, however, built for a company still firmly engaged with the means of production, was envisaged as a living, breathing entity, intending to expand and contract as the company inhaled and exhaled. When it was designed, Herman Miller’s CEO Max De Pree produced a ‘Statement of Expectations’ of ambitious plans.

This set out the prospect of a factory that was adaptable, welcoming, person-scaled and forgiving. In 2013, with concerns over the future of the building since Herman Miller were selling it, the factory was Grade II-listed, as it articulated ‘many of the key features of the British High-Tech movement’.

The elements that inspired the listing were designed to let the building adapt to its inhabitants: simple steel-grid structure, demountable panels of glass, fibreglass and louvres, and a deep, open plan. Ironically, the building became a part of a heritage system that would demand things stayed the same and Grimshaw had to contend that the original expectations for the building imagined it in many guises. 

In 2016, with the Farrell/Grimshaw partnership long since over, Nicholas Grimshaw’s contemporary practice was appointed to transform the listed building into a new home for the Bath Schools of Art and Design at Bath Spa University. Revisiting the original bold brief, project architect Allan Green remarks that ‘reading it with the eyes of it being Herman Miller’s factory, with changing machines, and production lines, it works very well; if you read it with the eyes of a university art school, it works even better’. 

The Herman Miller factory floor in 1976

Bath-Schools-of-Art-and-Design-by-Grimshaw-site-plan-223x300.gif

AR New into Old 2021 Commended: Grimshaw’s new iteration of their earlier work builds in strong and subtle ways on the legacy of High-Tech

The ambitious battle cry ‘do more with less’ heralded the High-Tech movement in architecture. Technological and engineering advances were enabling new ways to construct buildings and new materials to do it. Steel, concrete and fibreglass brought the future to life, as glass skins could reveal the nuts and bolts of a building others had sought to conceal.

Taking its beginnings in the hyper-efficient geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller to create flexible and adaptable futures, a group of young British architects called time on Modernism. Walls became demountable, floors unobstructed by columns, ceilings adorned with services; truly the building had become the machine.

Representing the early spirit of this movement, Farrell/Grimshaw’s Herman Miller factory, completed in 1976 and formerly occupied by the US office furniture manufacturing company, is a discernible example of the style. In a light industrial area on the banks of the River Avon, the low-rise, unassuming factory is testament to a movement that produced architecture as an apparatus for its users. With a simple steel frame, the single-storey building was clad with a series of interchangeable fibreglass panels, glazing and door units, which could be interchanged according to the needs of the factory. Entrances could be relocated, windows could become solid and the pattern of the facade rearranged.

In a city of unyielding Georgian crescents and grand colonnades, the panels, colour-matched to ubiquitous Bath stone, softened something altogether more radical. The large span of the steel structure created a single volume, originally dubbed the ‘super room’, which could absorb its original use as a factory and adapt to future needs and programmes. Within it, the space could be continuously redrawn. The expansive glazed facade filled the factory floor with light, creating a better working environment for factory workers and keeping the space unrestricted for the future.

The grand High-Tech plans the factory was built upon later became tarnished: architects continued to do more with more. The continual maintenance and upkeep of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre, one of the era’s most celebrated buildings, has cost more than the initial build (AR March 2021).

When Buckminster Fuller visited Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, completed in 1978, as concerns grew about lightness and sustainability in architecture, he asked, ‘How much does your building weigh, Mr Foster?’ Eight years later, the practice completed the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank HQ, then the tallest building in Hong Kong and reportedly the most expensive building in the world.Beige fibreglass panels making up the facade of the Bath Schools of Art and Design, formerly the Action Factory, are installed in 1976

As the UK’s oldest fibreglass building, its cladding panels, being installed here in 1976, are easily demountable and interchangeable

Credit:John Donat / Grimshaw

An architectural style based on a need to be flexible, so that architecture might touch the ground lightly, was corrupted by a need to dig deeper and build taller. The vast towers and open floor plans were embraced by corporate need, the gargantuan structures with colossal steel skeletons a far cry from High-Tech’s geodesic beginnings.

Farrell/Grimshaw’s factory, however, built for a company still firmly engaged with the means of production, was envisaged as a living, breathing entity, intending to expand and contract as the company inhaled and exhaled. When it was designed, Herman Miller’s CEO Max De Pree produced a ‘Statement of Expectations’ of ambitious plans.

This set out the prospect of a factory that was adaptable, welcoming, person-scaled and forgiving. In 2013, with concerns over the future of the building since Herman Miller were selling it, the factory was Grade II-listed, as it articulated ‘many of the key features of the British High-Tech movement’.

The elements that inspired the listing were designed to let the building adapt to its inhabitants: simple steel-grid structure, demountable panels of glass, fibreglass and louvres, and a deep, open plan. Ironically, the building became a part of a heritage system that would demand things stayed the same and Grimshaw had to contend that the original expectations for the building imagined it in many guises. 

In 2016, with the Farrell/Grimshaw partnership long since over, Nicholas Grimshaw’s contemporary practice was appointed to transform the listed building into a new home for the Bath Schools of Art and Design at Bath Spa University. Revisiting the original bold brief, project architect Allan Green remarks that ‘reading it with the eyes of it being Herman Miller’s factory, with changing machines, and production lines, it works very well; if you read it with the eyes of a university art school, it works even better’. The Herman Miller factory floor in 1976

The Herman Miller factory floor spills out by the River Avon with outdoor social space for factory workers

Credit:John Donat / Grimshaw

In an era of profit-driven universities, conflating an art school with a factory, with students on the production line, is ironic. Still, there is a quiet poetry in the way goods move in and out of the building. David Tinkham, technical manager for Bath Schools of Art and Design, describes how ‘raw materials come in, are refined and come out at the other end where they are displayed as artwork’. At the eastern end of the building, the original loading bays are still in use, their size now the only limit to the size of artwork that students can produce. 

Herman Miller used much of the built-in adaptability of the factory in the three decades they occupied it, but despite the initial person-scaled brief, the workers were not always at the heart of the factory floor.

In use, ‘it had become a building which put machines first and not people, which wasn’t the underlying principle of it’, says Ben Heath, project lead and principal at Grimshaw. ‘They started putting people in boxes and putting the machinery in the big open-plan spaces.’ This end of the building is now designated for ‘heavy’ work, where workshops with large, noisy equipment occupy the original concrete box that housed the factory machinery.

Surrounding this, modular glazing panels encase ‘light’ workshops and studios for activities such as ceramics and printmaking. A new mezzanine level has created a series of flexible studio and workspaces, with different degree programmes spilling into each other – each discipline can inform another as glimpses of the different practices are always on show. 

‘The refurbishment touches the ground and the building lightly’

Grimshaw’s most considerable intervention is a new rooftop pavilion: a discrete volume, set back from the facade, but in the same proportion as the modular panels. Separating the workshop and studios from shared facilities and gallery space is the central street: a large atrium and social space that was reinstated from the original plans, reusing ‘corner’ fibreglass panels that Herman Miller had removed in another iteration of its modular life. 

The original steel frame, concrete floor, and some 90 per cent of the fibreglass panels were retained, as well as the original foundations and a pre-existing but unused set of concrete pad foundations, delivered in the original build to pre-empt future expansion. The refurbishment touches the ground and the building lightly, with a new mezzanine structure that is independent from the existing steelwork. The bright yellow steelwork has always dominated the character of the interiors, and by raising the roof so that the upgraded services could be accommodated above it, this remains the same. A new CLT roof deck raises the height of the ‘super room’ by an additional metre, also providing more insulation and a series of rooflights to get light into the deep plan of the building.

The existing building anticipated later iterations and played a hand in generating them, as the fibreglass panels were refurbished inside the factory; the building revived itself. The dark glazing modules were upgraded to double glazing while retaining the original demountable design. The expressed structure and services, a hallmark of the High-Tech movement, allows the studio layout to be continually drawn and redrawn as the schools expand and contract: power and data can be plugged in and out from cables falling from the ceiling. This enabled the original concrete floor to be polished and retained.Plans and sections of the Bath Schools of Art and Design by Grimshaw

The Bath Schools of Art and Design presents a rare case of an architecture practice returning to a celebrated piece of their work, decades later; rarer yet, that the work was built to adapt and was then listed under legislation that stipulates it should not adapt. Grimshaw’s interventions are sensitive and deferential to the existing building.

While the work they have carried out is in itself not radical, they have built on pioneering foundations laid some 40 years earlier. High-Tech architecture demanded that the structure supporting a building be clearly communicated, with the wires, cables and pipes that keep it running ornamenting its surfaces.

The factory structure is a visual expression of their function and the services a technological diagram sprawling across the ceiling. In returning to a project four decades in the making, in many ways, Grimshaw had already drawn the plans.

The original factory building represents a vision of High-Tech architecture before the aims were undermined by a desire for buildings to be icons. The original steel, glass and fibreglass construction does not say much for sustainability agendas of the time, but the careful design and subsequent alterations have ensured very little of the building has been discarded. The uncompromising commitment to the original plans is what makes a series of careful interventions reveal something much more radical that few of the venerated products of the High-Tech movement could boast.

Source: https://www.architectural-review.com/awards/new-into-old/bath-schools-of-art-and-design-in-bath-uk-by-grimshaw

Department of Architecture: https://www.ibu.edu.ba/department-of-architecture/