Bristol’s famous marriage of art gallery, 1970s office and Victorian warehouse has been comprehensively redesigned by Snell Associates … We found out how it was done

The Arnolfini wedding
The Arnolfini wedding
The heart of the gallery has been opened up to create the circulation space and double-height gallery (visible on the top right of the picture). The circulation space spans from the ground floor to the second floor and is futureproofed in that it could be extended to roof level if the Arnolfini decides to take back the offices on the top three floors. A central steel column has been inserted to support the floors above. The double-height gallery is adjacent to the circulation space and has been created by knocking out the second floor and a concrete column in the middle of the space. The floors above are supported by a transfer beam that takes the loads down existing concrete columns at the sides of the room. These have been substantially strengthened by adding steel columns to each side of the existing column to take the extra loads.

Gateshead has the Baltic Centre, Liverpool and London each have a Tate and Birmingham has the Ikon. Ironically, the city that pioneered gallery-led regeneration with the Arnolfini arts centre has regressed to the back of the class – until now.

The Arnolfini gallery and arts centre in Bristol had been a big hit: the rundown docks area around it has been successfully regenerated. However, the gallery itself can no longer compete with its shiny rivals further north. Luckily a £7.5m Arts Council grant has changed the Arnolfini’s fortunes. “At one time the Arnolfini was quite innovative but other galleries have overtaken it,” says Robin Snell, director of Snell Associates, the architect responsible for the Arnolfini’s £4.5m refurbishment. “This has been an opportunity for them to catch up.”

The Arnolfini’s home, Bush House, is in the process of being completely reorganised by local contractor Cowlin Construction. It will have nearly twice as much space as before, large airy galleries and the services a gallery needs. Crucially the building has been opened out by the addition of a central circulation space containing stairs and a lift. “Bush House was designed in the style of a renaissance palazzo with thick walls and small windows,” says Snell. “These had a central, open courtyard for ventilation, light and a means of ordering the rooms around the centre. That’s what we’ve done here – by creating a new central circulation space and organising the galleries around that.”

This sounds simple enough in theory, but proved anything but in practice. Structural engineer Geoff Peattie of Arup, who has worked with Snell on the refurbishment, neatly sums up Bush House’s unusual nature. “From the outside it’s a Victorian warehouse but internally it is a 1970s concrete-framed office block,” he says. This strange juxtaposition came about because local developer and contractor the JT Group bought Bush House and refurbished it between 1973 and 1975. The JT Group inserted a concrete frame inside the building, complete with waffle slab-type concrete floors and a comparatively low 3 m floor-to-ceiling height, which was dictated by the existing windows. The floor slabs were supported on a grid of concrete columns between 5 and 6 m apart. JT Group turned the top four floors into offices and the Arnolfini rented the bottom two floors for a peppercorn rent.

Snell Associate’s plans called for the creation of a large, double-height gallery and central circulation space. The main problem with this was that there was very little structural redundancy in the internal concrete frame. “It was an early design-and-build project and they had skinned everything down to the bone,” says Peattie. To counteract this, the frame was strengthened by adding beams, columns and strips of carbon fibre to the 1970s frame. Part of the basement was excavated to create more space and the foundations were strengthened to take the loads from the new columns. Arnolfini now owns the building and has taken back one of the four floors of offices.

Despite the extensive structural work, Snell has been careful not to lose the building’s atmosphere. “The whole aesthetic is about the spirit of the old quayside warehouse, its gritty and needs to feel part of the industrial heritage of Bristol,” he says. “So there’s steel-plate bridges, exposed columns, beams and services and exposed concrete floors. Everything is on show.” This aesthetic is clearly visible in the work on the building, which is due for completion in June. The Arnolfini has moved back into its new office area, its bookshop is open, and some of the galleries on the top floor are virtually finished. Bristol is about to regain its place on the UK’s supergallery circuit …