Heritage and future thinking combine at Suter Gallery

September 29, 2016: News

Suter Art Gallery officially re-opened October.

Heritage and future thinking combine at Suter Gallery
“It is what you don’t see in that space that is the innovation,” Rodney Sampson

Warren and Mahoney architects partnered with Jerram Tocker Barron Architects to deliver the project which brings an enhanced international-calibre arts facility to the region. “It was an exciting opportunity to develop a modern gallery within a heritage context set in a delightful park,” says Ralph Roberts, principal of Warren and Mahoney.

A comprehensive assessment of the existing turn-of-the-century buildings was undertaken before design work began. Community engagement was vital to the success of the upgrade and the architects consulted with stakeholders including the Queens Gardens Preservation Society, iwi representatives and the Urban Design Panel.

The resulting development is sensitive to the NZ Heritage Places Trust Category II listed building, connects to its immediate environment, and has strong cultural engagement.

Occupying a tight triangular section, the original gallery and a theatre designed in the 1980s, act as bookends on the site. “One key design strategy was to make a central focus of the public entrance and a forecourt which gives recognition to the old gallery,” says Roberts.

A new foyer and internal walkway that now links the two existing structures contains a series of galleries on the west side, while to the east retail spaces and a café overlook a freshwater eel pond and the Victorian gardens.

There are two key frontages in the modern addition which combines basalt stone and zinc cladding in a form that snakes its way through the site. To the west, the frontage takes its design cue from the 1899 gallery. “The zinc is folded into shapes which identifies with the original building’s gable end,” says Roberts. To the east, the zinc-clad addition steps in a ziggurat form along the edge of the eel pond to create spaces for a walkway, planting and sculpture gardens. Towards the south, the upper level of the new building terminates in office space for staff and an outdoor terrace.

The conservation of New Zealand’s oldest art gallery in continuous use, along with the question of how to address a contemporary form up against a heritage one, required inventive solutions. The team worked hard to rise to the technical challenges and sympathetically marry old and new. “It is what you don’t see in that space that is the innovation,” explains Rodney Sampson, principal at Warren and Mahoney.

New foundations were required for seismic strengthening and, in a contractor-led initiative, the original timber floor was released and lifted to the ceiling - and then repositioned. “Not a single floorboard was removed,” says Roberts. 

In establishing The Suter as a regional arts centre equipped for the 21st century, larger exhibition rooms with better proportions were designed to accommodate more significant artworks and provide an appropriate venue for the display of international collections. “The exhibition capacity has increased by more than a third. Just as importantly, there is now a humidity controlled storage vault and proper curatorial areas,” says Marc Barron, principal and director at Jerram Tocker Barron Architects. A dedicated education room will accommodate school visits and a regular programme of evening art classes run by the Nelson Suter Art Society.

In the new foyer, seven totara columns are representative of iwi groups within the region. Nelson artist Robin Slow interpreted the individual designs put forward by each iwi which were then sandblasted in deep relief into each column.

It is hoped that this reinvigoration of a significant cultural asset for Nelson will become a community focal point and a tourist attraction. “The redevelopment has taken a facility that was already well-used and well loved, made it more relevant for today’s needs and equipped it for the future,” says Chris Pyemont, associate at Jerram Tocker Barron Architects and the site architect.

The project successfully connects two buildings that are 100 years apart while presenting a strong architectural solution that stands on its own merit. “It has been a privilege to continue the legacy of a very strong arts exhibition scene in the Nelson area,” says Roberts.