Pier Arts Centre

Neil Gillespie

Design director

The Pier Arts Centre

Victoria Street Stromness Orkney KW16 3AA


(Orkney UK)
2009 EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Prize for Conservation


No twilight within the courts of the sun
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

To those in the courts of the sun, The Pier Arts Centre is located in the far north. To an Orcadian however, the Orkney Islands lie on the southern threshold of a more vivid, imaginative North. The idea of North occupies a powerful place in the imagination. The hyperborean outbursts of a volcanic Iceland only fuel notions of a wilder and untameable North, ambivalent to the culture and economy of the south.  Traditionally Scots looked south for cultural sustenance we however have an inclination towards the North and ideas that emerge from a peripheral location.

Our buildings respond to the thin, low northern light, often soft and filtered through mist. This raking light reveals subtle shifts in plane and texture; in contrast the full passionate sun of the south needs deep modelling to satisfy it. We aim to create stillness, clarity and reflection. A poet friend, Thomas A Clark, wrote that ls"'reticence is a kind of shade.'' As fair skinned northerners it is wise to seek out the shadows.

Stromness enjoys a unique foreshore, characterised by small stone piers that describe the high and low water marks along the northern edge of the Hamnavoe inlet. It is an incomparable stone edge, a hesitant margin between land and sea. The Pier Arts Centre occupies a strategic position within this fringe, adjacent to the Pier Head, the point of arrival in Stromness and the gateway to a remarkable linear townscape.

The Pier Arts Centre is a collaboration of permanent gallery spaces for an internationally significant collection of British contemporary art along with temporary galleries. The project involved the complete refurbishment of the historic buildings, along with the construction of a new gallery structure.
We understand buildings to consist of rooms, rooms that have different characteristics and different atmospheres; some quiet and intimate, some tall, some long and low with views out to the town or to the sea. The Pier Art Centre already had a collection of fine rooms and although we completely refurbished them we considered these rooms as being part of this unique collaboration of art and architecture.

The plan consists of three separate but connected elements: a building that is part of Stomness's main street, Victoria Street and two parallel buildings that extend from the street towards the Hamnavoe. The street building contains entry, administration, library and meeting rooms along with an artist's studio. The original Pier building contains the collection while the new building contains temporary gallery space along with back of house facilities and in the attic storey the archive and collection storage.

The aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity
by Ludwig Wittgenstein

The new building adopts a familiar guise; a simple pitched roof recalls traditional waterfront warehouses. Its familiarity however is transformed through a faccedil;ade that shifts from solid to void; black patinated zinc ribs alternate with translucent glass infill. The building is grounded in its location yet through a lightness of touch escapes the Medusa effect of the prevalent stone culture, the resulting building and construction although not traditional has a deep resonance with the place.

The glazed faccedil;ade reveals the linear circulation that connects all three buildings. The skeletal structure and the spacing of the ribs recollect the original gallery's rafters. When viewed gable on, the new building is solid but begins to melt as the viewer moves, allowing it to fade as the original pier building comes into view. The new building asserts its presence without undermining the original pier building.

The new building appears to take on the black vestment of a dignified and valued elder. While giving a clue that this is a cultural building it also has a quality that is ambivalent and melancholic. The softness of the black patinated zinc cladding has an air of absence about it, a soft austerity.

The Victoria Street building is the antithesis of the new black structure. All is white. The lime washing of vernacular buildings is traditional yet it too has an uncanny air about it. The streets of Stromness are either stone or dull coloured render; the whiteness of the Pier Arts Centre has a hint of the spectre. Internally, spaces are a backdrop to the art. The materials and surfaces are bleached or translucent. Within these muted spaces there are moments of clarity with views out to the Hamnavoe, a new connection to the ancient northern landscape.



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