First pictures inside new arts centre

THE interior of Colchester's newest, most contemporary and controversial building is gradually taking shape - and here are the pictures to show it.Local arts organisation firstsite allowed members of the media inside the iconic new venue near Queen Street for the first time yesterday.

Roddy Ashworth

THE interior of Colchester's newest, most contemporary and controversial building is gradually taking shape - and here are the pictures to show it.

Local arts organisation firstsite allowed members of the media inside the iconic new venue near Queen Street for the first time yesterday.

Now recognisable is the auditorium of what will become an arts cinema, the hi-tech education facilities, the “museum” space - where the environment can be precisely controlled to preserve delicate or historical exhibits - and the restaurant and bar area.

In the centre of this, at ground level, is a recess for the Berryfield Mosaic, a Roman treasure that will be laid almost exactly where it was found in 1923 before it was moved to the nearby Castle Museum.

The building is intended to be a visitor attraction in its own right, but will also house galleries for a full range of contemporary arts, including a showcase section for Essex University's Latin American collection, a working studio space and large conference areas.

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As well as a shop, at the front of the £18 million building is an area where large sculptures and works can be displayed - a mini-version of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, which will eventually have a glass frontage manufactured by the makers of the Eiffel Tower, that can be opened like a garage door to allow big exhibition pieces to be moved in.

Its golden roof is made of an 85% copper and 15% aluminium alloy called Tecu Gold, that has been formulated to keep its glint over time, while the whole building sits on a “raft” of crushed concrete, rather than traditional foundations, so as not to disturb any Roman remains below.

The building - for a long time known as the “VAF”, or Visual Arts Facility, but now named firstsite:newsite - was originally scheduled to be built for £16.5 million but last year it was revealed that it had gone £1.5 million over budget.

It also faced a funding shortfall of around £500,000 after firtsite failed to raise as much of its share of the cost as had been planned.

The project's critics - of which there have been many - have described it as Colchester's own version of the Millennium Dome, an over-expensive, over-sized white-elephant which will cost local taxpayers dearly.

But supporters argue that although the building phase is being managed by Colchester Borough Council, most of the money required to fund the construction of firstsite:newsite - designed by internationally-renowned architect Rafael Vinoly - has come from external organisations such as the East of England Development Agency and the Arts Council of England.

As well as displaying art, the idea behind firstsite:newsite is that it will also create a community space for the town - and contribute to the regeneration of Colchester's run-down St Botolph's area.

Brian Jarvis, the borough council's portfolio holder for planning and regeneration, said: “All the partners recognise that firstsite:newsite is crucial to the planned redevelopment of the surrounding St Botolph's Quarter, which is helping to create an even better Colchester.

“This world-class project will bring millions of pounds of investment to the borough.”

Jeremy Lucas, cabinet member of Essex County Council - which helped fund the construction of the building - said: “This world class project will act as the catalyst for the urban and cultural regeneration of Colchester, spearheading the cultural programme of the region, boosting tourism and generating millions of pounds of investment for the Colchester area.

“The hugely exciting building has been an exemplar of how to bring together the contemporary arts with the facilities needed for both conference and social activities.”

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