My name is Maria Balshaw and I’m Director of the Whitworth Art Gallery.  For the purposes of this blog, I am also project sponsor for our plan to expand the Whitworth Gallery into our surrounding park and improve all of our facilities for visitors, for the people who come to learn here, for the collections we look after and and for artists who show their work in the Gallery.

‘Capital expansion’, ‘gallery redevelopment’, ‘new extension’ are dry and unspecific descriptions of a process that we are finding incredibly exciting, challenging and transformative.  In June 2014 time we hope we will have a renewed Whitworth.  A beautiful Gallery, embracing its park and the people who use it – a Gallery that is fit for 21st Century Manchester.  We’ve set up this blog so that we can share some of our excitement with those of you who are interested in our project.  We will use this space to share inside stories, emerging images, stories from our design team and from staff here.

We hope we’ll be able to keep it up all the way through the design process and right up to the day we open the new spaces.

In 2007 we started discussions with our own university and with the Heritage Lottery Fund about whether they might be interested in supporting the expansion and improvement of the Whitworth Gallery, which has remarkable and important collections but has had little support since the 1960s to expand to meet the needs of new and bigger audiences.  The University identified improving the Gallery as a strategic priority and the HLF indicated they were interested and in September 2008 we submitted a £6 million bid to their national heritage funding scheme, for 50% of the funding of a £12 million expansion project.  A long process of interrogation of our ideas followed and in February 2009 we were delighted to hear that we had been successful, one of only 3 national bids supported by the HLF in 2009 (the other two are the National Railway Museum in York and Lincoln Cathedral).

We then had to get architects on board!  With the support of the Royal Institute of British Architects we ran an international competition, that attracted 139 submissions from architects from all over the world.  After a process that involved scrutiny by staff, by visitors, by a competition panel and even by some groups of local primary school children, who ran their own parallel architectural competition, the successful practice was MUMA (McInnes, Usher, McKnight Architects).  They are a wonderful practice, who love museums and galleries – recent projects have included the Newlyn Art Gallery and the recently completed Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the V&A.
For those who are interested in the architectural lingo, we are about to sign off RIBA Stage C.  For those who don’t use the technical language, we are at the point where we know exactly want we want to do and how we are going to achieve it.  We also know that we can afford to do the things that we want!

So that is where we are.  We will be sharing images and information, so that you can see what the new development is going to look like.

Nicola Walker is client coordinator on the project.  This means she makes sure the design team get to know everything they need to know about the current building and what we want in the future and she makes sure we know everything the design team are proposing.  It means she knows all, all, all the detail.  So I’m going to leave it to her to write some more about what the changes to the current building and the new extension are going to contain, and show a bit of what they look like.

But I wanted to end with an anecdote.  We are finding that every week we learn something new about the Gallery we thought we knew, or the design team find a new and fascinating way of getting us to look at the project.  I want to share some of this on this blog.  So this is my predator story.

One of the loveliest features of the new extension will be a cafe extending into the trees.  The back of the Whitworth has some beautiful London planes and ash trees and the cafe will run very close to an avenue of greenery that draws your eye right across the park.  Clever engineering (courtesy of Simon Smith and his team at Ramboll) is making sure we don’t do any damage to the trees, nor have to take any out and we want it to feel like the cafe is floating in the trees, ethereal and beautiful and allowing you to feel the beauty of outside while you are inside having tea or your (organic) lunch.  Stuart McKnight, from MUMA, has been experimenting with his team to devise a way to use structural glazing for the cafe.  As a non specialist I understand this as the mullions are making the building stand up, rather than there being a separate structure that you insert the windows in (Stuart can add a comment if this is a poor explanation).  The architects then want to use highly polished stainless steel for these mullions, so that they reflect the trees and make the structure dissolve as you look at it.

And the story?  Well Stuart explained it to me by saying, ‘It’ll be a bit like the alien in Predator, flitting through the trees and its form only being seen as reflections catch it’.  Fortunately, I am well versed in 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger films, so I knew what he was talking about!  For those of you who don’t check it out on wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predator_(film)

Until the next post, keep thinking about cups of tea in the trees, aliens and enjoy the summer sunshine.


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