Has David Chipperfield done for Wakefield what he did for Berlin and created a popular people’s building? Stephen McClarence considers Yorkshire’s case to be judged a world centre for sculpture.
I flee the grim semi-dereliction of Wakefield’s Kirkgate station, turn left at a boarded-up pub and get completely lost. Where’s the new Hepworth gallery, I ask in a pharmacy. Abdul Khaliq, the pharmacist, takes me outside and points the way (past the Autocentre and the Tubs & Taps Bathroom Studio). “I’m glad you’ve come,” he says. “We need more people like you from outside the town. The Hepworth is going to put us on the map.”
Which is exactly what everyone involved in the £35m Hepworth Wakefield gallery is hoping. This battleship grey huddle of concrete buildings on a weir of the River Calder may primarily be a celebration of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, but it’s also designed as a step in the regeneration of the city where she was born.
The gallery has attracted huge media interest and public controversy, largely thanks to its forbidding exterior. Relentlessly grey – as though the image of the North isn’t grey enough already – it has been likened to a collection of sloping sheds, a bunker, a prison and a secret-police headquarters. And I’m here to meet the man responsible, the celebrated architect Sir David Chipperfield, at the gallery’s press preview, which has lured 70 journalists from all over the world and West Yorkshire.
He has the reputation of being as uncompromising as some of his buildings, dismissing the superficiality of much modern culture as “an in-flight magazine lifestyle, all branding, marketing and ‘accessibility’, a word that usually means dumbing-down”. Not for him a world where artists strive to be “celebrities” and buildings need to be meretriciously “wacky” to get public attention. He does not do glitz.
Neither does the Hepworth’s setting. I cross a bridge to the gallery. On the left is a railway viaduct, on the right a boatyard, ahead a deserted warehouse. The grey concrete has a smoother, silkier feel than you might expect and Hepworth sculptures beckon enticingly through windows. But the overall effect is still discouragingly downbeat. If they can get people inside, however, it’s a very different story.
Hold on, here’s the press pack, many fresh from their train up from London, critics and building specialists, eager to assess. They climb down from the coach that has brought them from Wakefield’s other, pleasanter, station, and stalk across the foyer, peering left and right, notebooks in hand.
Chipperfield is with them, a stocky, self-contained figure with waves of silver hair. In his trim-cut dark suit and artfully knotted scarf, he cuts a continental figure – aptly, as his great successes have, until recently, been abroad, in countries where the arts are taken seriously and not glammed up as a sideshow. During dignitaries’ speeches, he stands at the back, preoccupied with his mobile phone, almost detached from the praise being heaped on him.
“As you go round, the genius of what David has achieved is amazing,” says Coun Peter Box, leader of Wakefield Council, whose quiet, thoughtful eloquence belies the passion he has brought to this project over the past decade. Wakefield, he leaves his audience in no doubt, is the sculptural epicentre of the world.
“We’ve got the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – by any other name the National Sculpture Park,” he says. As for the building’s design: “I think some have compared it to a bunker. At least what we’ve done is create on the streets of Wakefield a debate about architecture.”
The speeches are a vindication of all things regional. It’s not just about the world stage, says Dr Robert Bewley from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which helped fund the gallery. “It’s a chance for local people to appreciate what they’ve got locally. You don’t have to go to London to have a cultural experience, you can go to Manchester, you can stay in Wakefield.”
Chipperfield leads a tour of the gallery’s interlocking rooms. He talks with a gentle West Country burr, so low and quiet that people edge closer to hear him. He says creating the gallery was like “a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle” and there’s certainly a lot of geometry involved.
More important, though, there’s an uplifting sense of space, height and – exactly what you don’t expect from the exterior – light. The rooms are flooded with light reflected off white walls, from skylights and from floor-to-ceiling windows that counterpoint the sculptures with the urban reality of Wakefield outside.
The gallery marks a sort of homecoming for Hepworth and Castleford-born Henry Moore, both of whom decamped to agreeable southern places for most of their lives. They may have talked about the inspiration they drew from the hard northern landscapes of their childhoods, but their sculptures are overwhelmingly suffused with soft, southern curves.
Towards the end of the tour, Chipperfield throws in one of his favourite quotes, from the art critic David Sylvester: “Art has no greater enemy than architects.” Here, he has been art’s best friend; sculptures can rarely have been more effectively displayed. They’re like standing stones given extra focus, presence and power.
And so to lunch and the interview. Except that the fire alarm goes off and we all evacuate the building and stand on the lawn as the fire engines roar in. Is this is going to be the first art gallery to burn down before it’s even officially opened?
It isn’t and eventually we have lunch, but then Chipperfield is whisked away for another interview and delay follows delay and, more than an hour and a half after the agreed time, he emerges and only has 15 minutes in the foyer before boarding the coach for the train back to London.
He says he knew practically nothing about Wakefield until he landed the Hepworth commission. And his impression of it? “I think that as in many of our towns and cities, the 20th century hasn’t been very kind to it. Architects, I guess...” his eyes twinkle “...though traffic planners have done more damage than we have.
“Just step out of here and see the dominance of the roads. I can’t believe it has to be like that. But that was seen as ‘progress’ in the Sixties. And Wakefield had the extra dimension of losing its industrial role and spirit. It had a big task to regain its identity.”
In the right hands, he thinks, the process can be helped by new museums and galleries. The potential problem is “looking in the wrong direction and saying ‘We’ve got to bring people up from London’. Your first priority should be to attract people from the community. If not, a museum will die. Make the museum work and regeneration will come.”
As for the Hepworth’s controversial design...
“Apparently it’s been called a box,” he says. I say it’s been called a lot worse than that. “Calling things names is not having a debate,” he says, drawing a parallel with reactions to his controversial – the word follows him around – refurbishment of Berlin’s Neues Museum, which was damaged by World War Two bombing raids.
“In advance, there were candlelit protests outside and a huge collection of names against the project. People said I was doing more damage than Winston Churchill had done. But when it opened, it all changed and it became ‘the people’s building’. People came up to thank me for what I’d done for Germany.”
It was a similar story at his recently opened Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate. There were doubts at first – and then 60,000 visitors flocked in the first six weeks.
“We’ve got to beware that the voices of the cynics don’t overwhelm the general public, which is far more open-minded than people give it credit for. The community here want value for money. They don’t want to be bulls****ed. And the disfunctionalism that exists between modern architecture and the general public is a disabling thing.”
Here in Wakefield, he says, he was very taken by the waterfront site and aimed “to make a serious museum that has the capacity to be very popular, to try to make it accessible and enjoyable”.
Was its design based, as some have suggested, on the North’s industrial landscape, by sloping factory roofs? All he’ll say is he wanted to create “a building that has a silhouette”.
And he’s off on the coach and the train back to London. Outside the sun is shining. The gallery is still relentlessly grey, but it’s a gentler grey: less battleship grey, more – well – dove grey perhaps. It could grow on you.
BEYOND THE RHUBARB TRIANGLE-HOW YORKSHIRE’S ARTISTIC HERITAGE TOOK CENTRE STAGE
Until recently, few in Yorkshire would have considered sculpture as one of the county’s greatest achievements. But all that has changed with the opening of the Hepworth Wakefield.
Media coverage of it has described Yorkshire as “a world centre for sculpture”, with a credible “sculpture triangle” formed by the new gallery, the exhilarating Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds –a worthy successor to the Yorkshire rhubarb triangle, as one or two people have wryly suggested.
Welcome to Yorkshire, the regional tourism body, is hoping the idea of a sculpture trail will lure visitors and Simon Wallis, the Hepworth’s director, has described the Wakefield area as “the birthplace of modern British sculpture”.
”Where else can you go to Europe’s most-visited sculpture park and the UK’s largest purpose-built gallery outside of London?” he asks. “You can have an unexpectedly wonderful time here.”
Harewood House too is celebrating sculpture with its Finding Adam exhibition, an exploration of what Antony (Angel of the North) Gormley has called “Sir Jacob Epstein’s powerful evocation of masculine yearning”. Gormley himself will have two new pieces on show at Harewood this summer.
How things have changed since the late 1980s, when Gormley’s proposed 120 ft Brick Man was turned down by Leeds City Council.
It would have towered over the trains on a patch of waste land outside the city’s station, but councillors condemned it as out of scale and likely to dominate nearby buildings -– not quite grasping that that was precisely its point.
That proposed site is known as “the Holbeck triangle” – completing our trio of Yorkshire triangles alongside sculpture (which local councillors don’t always understand) and rhubarb (at which they’re often experts).