Not another one! That is the initial reaction to the news that the Rafael Viñoly-designed visual arts centre in Colchester languishes unfinished while its contractor and client squabble over the escalating budget.
As the arguments rage the costs keep going up and the completion date becomes ever more distant.
Unfortunately there always seems to be one of these projects on the go somewhere. The pink paint is barely dry on Will Alsop’s Public in West Bromwich when up pops the visual arts facility to take its place. It’s a problem that afflicts ambitious, publicly-funded schemes procured by one-off clients with limited cash.
Why do these projects always seem to go wrong? The problems start at the beginning when some worthy organisation nobody has heard of is given the chance to move out of a crumbling terrace into a shiny new home. The small organisation goes “wow” and immediately decides that only a glamorous building designed by a top-flight architect will do. And because the project will double as a kickstarter for regeneration the funders want a high-profile building too, so they say “okay, then”.
It’s great that people want inspirational architecture but if they want it delivered on time and budget they have to go the extra mile. The first question for the Colchester team should have been whether £16.5m was enough for such a complex building. Not only is the geometry difficult to get your head round but the team have opted for a huge opening glass section of facade that by all accounts is equally difficult to make.
The only hope of delivering such a project successfully is to have an inspirational manager running the job. As at Marks Barfield’s Lightbox in Woking, an art gallery delivered for £4m, 20% less than the original budget, somebody needs to pull the project team together. Every detail needs to be nailed before pressing the start button. Are the skills there to build it? Are the prototypes for technically demanding elements going to be built to check the buildability of the design? That would have taken care of that big opening door …
The only hope of delivering such a project is to have an inspirational, experienced and dynamic manager running the job
Once on site, any problems that crop up need to be resolved before they get out of control; the knock-on effects of the roof deflections at Colchester seem to be the root cause of two key specialists leaving the site. What is shocking is that the architect says it only became aware of these contractual issues four months after they went.
And speaking of contracts, was it appropriate for such a small, inexperienced client to accept such a big construction risk? Madness is the word that springs to mind. Contractors may be reluctant to take on difficult designs, but they do and it often works. The Welsh assembly was a project that started off in deep trouble until it went to design and build, which focused minds and stopped it going the way of the Scottish parliament, which was procured by construction management.
It’s crucial that Viñoly comes out of this with a clean nose. He has much more at stake with his proposed Battersea Power Station scheme. Not only has this been panned by the critics but it’s attached to the UK’s most disaster-prone site. That’s a challenge that makes Colchester look like a tin shed beside a space station …
Thomas Lane, assistant editor