Design Exchange catches up with architect Keith Williams

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After the great boom in regional art buildings built by leading architects of the last twenty years, what next for the new generation of galleries? Design Exchange caught up Keith Williams, a man whose practice has a string of high-profile arts buildings to its name, to get his point of view.

Art galleries, concert halls and theatres have enjoyed a boom time over the last two decades. A generation of architects, from Britain and mainland Europe, have benefited from this renewed in interest in set-piece cultural buildings for city centres, building an impressive set of works, from Herzog and de Meuron’s reworking of Bankside power station for the Tate Modern to David Chipperfield Architects Hepworth Gallery at Wakefield.

Keith Williams

Keith Williams

Keith Williams knows a thing or two about the power – or otherwise – of a well-designed arts building. His practice, which he founded in 2001, has gained a solid reputation for a succession of sensitive, critically-acclaimed and award-winning arts buildings, in the UK and abroad.

His best known work, the Unicorn Theatre, which specialises in youth performance, was completed in 2005, part of the gradual transformation of Southwark from unloved Thames-side slack space to the thriving commercial district we are now familiar with. Williams followed this with the Wexford Opera House and the New Marlowe Theatre in Cantebury.

Wexford Opera House Photographer: Ros Kavanagh

Wexford Opera House
Photographer: Ros Kavanagh

We meet in the Royal Society of the Arts, just off the Strand. Williams is a fellow there, and it’s an auspicious venue for a discussion on the role that arts venues can have on civic life. Although it could pass for a rather subdued organisation today, the RSA has its roots in the thrum and buzz of the London coffee houses of the 18th century. Today the clatter and murmuring in the canteen comes from the suited members drawn to its central London location, handy for the types of plotting and scheming that has been going on in the capital since the Romans dug a port by the Thames.

Tall, slim and with a mop of greying hair that contrasts with his black pullover, Williams returns from the server with coffees, and unfolds his limbs into a chair. Buoyed by the rep it gained through its arts and culture buildings, the practice’s workload has got a lot more international, he tells me. The practice is currently working on a museum project in Canada, on the great plains, on the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Like many of his contemporaries among the crop of London-based pragmatic modernists, Williams has been drawn to, and courted by, the more welcoming, less hostile climes of mainland Europe, where increasing amounts of his work comes from. There’s a reciprocally respectful relationship between architect and the civic authorities in places like Germany that is not so prevalent in the more pragmatic, overtly capitalistic UK, says Williams.

Wexford Opera House Photographer: Ros Kavanagh

Wexford Opera House
Photographer: Ros Kavanagh

The spate of high-profile arts buildings built over the last twenty years has enrichened the UK, both metaphorically and literally, says Williams, pointing to oft-quoted statistics of the contribution major arts buildings make to the local services economy. Importantly, the boom has helped go some way to bring regional diversity to a scene all too often dominated by the four nation’s capitals. “Since the advent of the Heritage Lottery Fund (an arts funding pot which distributes lottery-derived income) a considerable investment has been made into arts infrastructure, and over that time there has been a regional diversity fostered: it’s not complete yet,” says Williams. “There is still underinvestment in places like the northwest and perhaps Cornwall and Devon, but there has been a broadening of museums, galleries, that has not just been London-centric, which is very important“.

Why does this matter so much? For Williams, it’s down to what he calls “the civilising influence of art”. “You could perfectly exist without paintings, or sculpture or music – it’s not fundamental to life in the way that eating, breathing, drinking, but what an impoverished place we’d have” says Williams. “Culture in the arts is a way we measure ourselves over time, in way which is hard to do by most other mean. In the example of theatre, it can hold up a mirror to society and shows aspects of itself which perhaps it hadn’t quite realized.”

One very tangible example of the positive impact that the introduction of theatre had on people’s lives is given by Williams, when he recounts a visit back to the the Unicorn Theatre (set up in 1947 to encourage under-18s to take part in theatre, and who received a permanent home designed by Williams in 2005), when two teenagers explained how their lives had been changed though getting involved in the youth theatre. “These were just two people whose lives have been fundamentally shifted by that building going into that location”.

Marlowe Theatre Photographer: Jim Higham

Marlowe Theatre
Photographer: Jim Higham

While enthusiastic about the power of art, Williams cautions about commissioning a building without sound ideas about what will be programmed, as was done with the Millennium Dome, which now has found renewed purpose as a leisure complex. He’s wary of the ‘Guggenheim Effect’, and says ““I’m not interested in building empty vessels”. There are clear limits on what architecture can do for a city, but architects must do their best to make the most of the opportunities they can influence.

Describing the procession through the Wexford Opera House that culminates in visitors being rewarded with a spectacular view of the city after climbing the building’s tower, Williams talks about the importance of creating exciting spaces of delight for the cities inhabitants. “I think our job is to ensure that facilities they have are you know first class and the whole experience being in those buildings is a thrilling thing.” After doing their best to do this, says Williams, much is down to the people responsible for programming the shows. 

The Novium Museum Photographer : David Grandorge

The Novium Museum
Photographer : David Grandorge

Bilbao effect or not, the prospect of the Brit’s passion for new arts hubs looks unlikely to continue to be sated, says Williams, given the apparent political consensus that public spending must be minimised.  Some balk at the increased involvement that firms are having on the arts.  The long-running BP/TATE partnership has recently come under vocal critics from environmental lobbyists. ( Confirmed to end in 2017

Williams view on corporate involvement in sponsoring the arts, however,  is relaxed. “I think commercial interests have to become more involved and there’s clear benefits to them – in ways that are more profound than solely advertisement credits –  to  engage with the arts”.

The political will to finance large projects through the public purse is simply not there, argues Williams. All this means that those building new generation of arts buildings must – and will  – get inventive in their funding models.

“They’re going to be dealt with creative, interesting ways. The human race is fantastically innovative at finding innovative ways of dealing with complicated knotty problems. It is shifting and it will continue to shift. Who knows where it will end, but its an exciting part of the journey. “

In the last few years the gallery experience has changed significantly, says Williams. “Museums in particular have had this renaissance, from going from this dusty thing full of relics to being this great day out that you go to with your family or friends or school trips, it’s something you really want to go to, it’s become an exciting thing to do.”

This transformation will continue apace, predicts Williams as the possibilities opened up by digital technology are fully understood by artists, gallerists and public alike. “There will be the diversification of the arts experience outside the structure of the building,” says Williams. “You could go on from that and say, well are all these buildings relics? As an architect I don’t think so – more and more people want to live in cities”.

The Unicorn Theatre Photographer: Hélène Binet

The Unicorn Theatre
Photographer: Hélène Binet

And what does Williams see as the future for arts buildings in an ever more connected age? He’s reluctant to play soothsayer and make any hard-and-fast predictions on the future of the gallery, but he sees that the growth of our digital lives will merely lead to different demand for physical sensation. “There is this kind of interesting thing about the physicality which our human sensory group seems to need,” he says, citing the resurgence of vinyl records in an era dominated by mp3s, and the continuing survival of the book format.

Williams is upbeat and eager to see how this will unfold, and how his practice, his peers and the new generation of architects, curators and all parties will make themselves part of this new environment. “I remain incredibly excited and optimistic about architecture and its role in finding the next generation of important cultural buildings. I’m optimistic about the way people, audience, visitors engage with culture.  And I’m optimistic that we’ll find a mechanism to pay for all this”. And with that, the stairwell of the RSA in which we’re seated, fills up with a cohort of conference attendees, filing through on their way to lunch. Our time is up.

Words James Pallister

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