As BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art marks it’s 20th Anniversary, Ellis Williams is looking forward to reuniting with the BALTIC team later this week to celebrate and reflect upon the impact the Centre has had, both culturally and regeneratively across the region. In recognition of this major milestone we sat down for a 20-minute interview with the Designer, Dominic Williams – now one of Ellis Williams’ Directors, to explore BALTIC’s inception, the long road to the Centre’s delivery and the legacy it has created in the 20 years since.
How did you come to be in involved in this project?
I’ve always had an interest in art, particularly contemporary art, so the opportunity to be involved in the design of this exciting new art space within the shell of a derelict flour mill really intrigued me. The architect for the scheme was to be selected via a two-stage international RIBA design competition, with all entries completely anonymised and the winner only being revealed to the panel following deliberation and final selection. I decided to enter; proposing a simple solution centered on the understanding that the new Centre needed to provide spaces offering maximum flexibility to accommodate the widest range of contemporary art. The challenge of creating a series of large, flexible, contemporary art spaces in place of the 160 vertical silos that made up the mill building was truly exciting and that was something I relished as a young architect.
How did you help BALTIC to realise such an ambitious scheme?
Believe it or not, the very first brief we received for BALTIC was printed on a single A4 sheet of paper. It was a simple, aspirational outline of key requirements that left a lot of room for creativity and evolution during design development. Throughout the 8-year design and delivery period, we worked closely with the Arts Consultant (prior to the appointment of BALTIC’s first Director – Sune Nordgren), local artists, arts publishers and wider stakeholders including Gateshead Council, local residents, One NorthEast and the project’s key funding partner – The National Lottery through Arts Council England, to understand their project aspirations and ensure that the scheme was developed to provide the optimum level of flexibility. This included the design of a wide range of gallery spaces (including 1no. close control gallery), the design and installation of the largest Art Lift in the UK (the size of a small house and capable of taking large heavy elements), a high level of infrastructure and servicing, sacrificial finishes and careful consideration of both floor loadings and ceiling loadings to accommodate a range of art installations.
What impact has the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art had on the wider regeneration of Gateshead Quays?
When Gateshead Council first took the visionary decision to develop this run-down area on the River Tyne’s south bank with some high-profile cultural buildings, BALTIC was still some way from full conceptualisation and funding. However the scheme soon gained traction with incredible support from the art community, local residents and major funders including The National Lottery through Arts Council England, Northern Rock Foundation, the European Regional Development Fund and One NorthEast. As BALTIC was being delivered, the regeneration potential on Gateshead Quays became acutely apparent and plans for Baltic Square, the Millenium Bridge and Sage Gateshead began to take shape. With BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art acting as the catalyst, this area along the riverside has seen huge transformation over the past 20 years, from derelict warehousing and scrapyards to creating an exciting new cultural destination on the waterfront.
How to do you feel now, looking back at the project and the legacy of BALTIC?
I remember the excitement I felt, to be involved in such a unique and challenging project as a young architect. The building still holds a special atmosphere and I recall it was something that we wanted for the project as a unique proposition on the banks of the Tyne looking out to the cityscape. As is often the case, complex projects tend to take a long time to develop and even when they are delivered you can’t always immediately tell if they are truly successful in achieving what you set out to do. Now, 20 years on, I look back at the BALTIC project and it is incredibly fulfilling to see that the Centre is exceeding all of it’s original aspirations – celebrating contemporary art in all its forms and hosting a range of outstanding, experimental and inspiring work, whilst also contributing positively to the cultural fabric of society.
What, in your opinion, is BALTIC’s legacy?
As a commissioning Gallery, we wanted to create a series of highly flexible spaces for artists to explore new ways of working and to enable allowing interaction with visitors encouraging engagement and participation with contemporary art practice. I think BALTIC has been an exemplar of this concept, fulfilling its original potential and showed us how cultural projects can enrich people’s lives. Reading the latest stats, its impressive – they have presented over 245 exhibitions of work by 707 artists of 71 nationalities and welcoming more than 8.8 million visitors. It has also hosted the Stirling Prize (2002) and the Turner Prize (2011).
I think BALTIC is an example of what is possible to achieve with regeneration schemes, even designing within the constraints of a difficult, industrial, heritage building. I believe that we conceived something atmospheric and unique, and even now 20 years since opening, it is still the beating heart of a vibrant cultural development.