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Plymouth City Centre: City Art Gallery and Museum

Part 2 Project 2002
Geoff Watts
University of Plymouth, UK
The city of Plymouth stands at a crossroads in its intriguing architectural history. In May 2002 Richard Rogers and other prominent practitioners descended upon the city to lead an urban conference in order to discuss its future and, once again, to attempt to raise its profile. Having endured the idealistic but harsh realities of Patrick Abercrombie’s post war plan Plymouth is now poised to move into its next chapter.

My 2nd year diploma project was set on two different levels of detail. Firstly I wanted to tackle some of the major flaws in the Abercrombie plan by developing a masterplan for the city centre. Secondly, and born of this improved cityscape, I wanted to work up a design for a new City Museum and Art Gallery – an important public building currently under visited outside of the city centre.

By adopting some of the better aspects of the Abercrombie plan, such as his use of courtyards, I was able to create a design which brought other city buildings into its realm. In effect this generated cohesion between existing buildings, instead of treating them all as individual objects in space as they are at the moment. The Guildhall was instrumental in this approach since it became an ideal vehicle through which to engage with issues such as Plymouth’s conflict between fronts and backs.

The chosen site, a car park and law courts building, is located on Armada Way behind the 19th century Guildhall. It is a notoriously difficult site to work with. Entry to the C.M.A.G. is gained through a courtyard, located adjacent to the busy north-south axis of Armada Way, where one finds oneself in a green pocket of space punctuated with sculptures. A driving theme for the C.M.A.G. was the use of light as a means for drawing people into and through the building. Low ceiling heights give way to larger and more dramatic volumes; creating a feeling of tension and release. Of particular note in this philosophy is the toplit exhibition corridor which connects the entrance hall to the main gallery space. Here, light is bounced off a rippling shelf of rainwater so that visitors are encouraged to literally follow the path of moving light in the appropriate direction.

The design of the C.M.A.G. was borne of my belief that simplicity breeds clarity – and that clarity is an integral component of a humane architecture. I wanted to create not just a space for art and artefacts, but a stimulating, exciting and intellectually stimulating building for the people of Plymouth.

Geoff Watts

Matthew spent the two years of his Diploma working within the Zen Studio and the 'Humane Architecture' post-graduate diploma programme. The ideas in his work grew out of the themes investigated in these programmes. In Matthew's final year's work his concern was to apply the thesis of 'Humane Architecture' to heal some of the flaws in Patrick Abercrombie's post-war urban plan for Plymouth. Matthew's proposals suggest ways of modifying the Abercrombie plan to introduce a tertiary level of hierarchical activity into the city centre. His proposals for the City Art Gallery and Museum recast the city's Civic Centre to accommodate additional public buildings and by integrating his building into the existing Guild Hall, gave new vitality to one of the City's major buildings.

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