Restoring an old Victorian school to create a stunning gallery within a new urban quarter.
In the 1990’s, Argent bought a 17 acre swathe of derelict land in central Birmingham with plans to transform it into a vibrant mixed-use quarter: Brindleyplace. Amongst the abandoned factories and warehouses, only one building of quality remained – the Grade ll listed former Oozells Street School designed by renowned Victorian school architects, Martin & Chamberlain.
At this time, Ikon Gallery was occupying a found space in the city, and as their lease was coming to an end, they had started to look for new premises. With ambitions for expansion and a real desire to bring contemporary art to the widest possible audience, they saw potential in the school to provide the cultural element of what was the largest mixed-use redevelopment project in the country.
Led by their inspirational director, Liz Ann MacGregor, Ikon set about raising funds to make the former school its new permanent home. At the same time, we were commissioned by Argent to stabilise and repair the building fabric, which had deteriorated and was in very poor condition. The brief and design quickly developed with the client and soon after, Ikon Gallery received Lottery funding for the conversion project.
Collaboration was at the heart of the design process for Ikon. Gallery staff were closely involved in all decisions, from general arrangement to choice of taps, to ensure operational best practice was always adopted. We visited many buildings with the client group to take inspiration and make sure that the gallery was exemplary in every way.
Artist Tania Kovats joined the team at an early stage with a brief alongside ours – to influence the design and feel of the building and ensure the spaces were suited to the needs of contemporary artists – so crucial considering Ikon’s wish to attract the best artists in the world. An access group was also heavily involved in the choice of materials, colour and detailing. This influenced many aspects of the design, including such fundamental points as the need for risers on all stairs.
The most obvious manifestation of Tania’s involvement is the way the building sits on a slate plinth – making the gallery itself a work of art within the environment. Externally, we firstly restored the building back to its former gothic glory – painstakingly repairing and replacing damaged brickwork and stonework, and demolishing dilapidated extensions.
Inside, we made considerable alterations. The old classrooms were replaced with galleries that needed to be as flexible as possible to accommodate a range of artists and exhibits. We wanted to create an environment where artists are able to determine the setting as much as their work. Importantly, the route to the galleries is also visually interesting. A new glazed extension separates all circulation from the exhibition spaces, creating a modern addition in contrast to the traditional red brick of the main building.
Additional space has been released by creating a new basement, which now houses the gallery’s extensive outreach and education programmes. Offices, storage facilities and a library are also located here, keeping all administrative functions away from the galleries themselves.
We also rebuilt the damaged tower, completing the building’s cosmetic enhancements and creating a recognisable landmark for Brindleyplace. In fact, during the design process, Farrell’s original masterplan was amended to reflect Ikon Gallery’s prominence within the wider redevelopment. It sits in a new public plaza on the canalside, well-connected to the rest of the site and the city beyond.