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The Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Arts, Bristol

Location: Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol

Artist: Susanna Heron


The redevelopment of the Arnolfini tackled a problematic 19th century building to create a 21st century space for contemporary arts.  Over a seven year period, the design went through a number of phases, with purchase of the building proving a key to finally creating a new, enlarged, legible space with room for production and education, as well as new galleries and live art spaces. Arnolfini's programme now encompasses exhibitions, film, live art, dance and literature, along with extensive education and engagement activities.

Susanna Heron was the design team artist and worked on the scheme, in various stages of intensity, from inception to completion.  The architects and lead consultants were Snell Associates, led by Robin Snell, based in London.

The gallery director, Tessa Jackson, followed by Caroline Collier, acted as client along with the gallery trustees, and the finished building was handed on to the current director, Tom Trevor.  Project Manager John Monahan stayed with the project throughout the scheme and provided vital continuity with the change of director.

A key partner was Arts Council England, whose agreement and release of a National Lottery grant of £7.5 million at a critical part of the process allowed the purchase of the entire building, which in turn allowed the crucial design features of the new space to be created.


Arnolfini has long been a key part of the cultural scene in Bristol, providing the first significant space for contemporary art in the city when it was established by Jeremy and Annabel Rees above a shop in 1961.  A pioneer on Bristol’s now-regenerated Harbourside, it moved to an old tea warehouse there in 1975, where it occupied the ground and first floor of the building.  The gallery spaces were reorganised by David Chipperfield architects in the 1980s, and a new café bar was created with the artist Bruce McLean.

However, the spaces and configuration of the building were never ideal, with problems concerning orientation once inside the gallery, circulation around the spaces and access in general, as well as a desire for more project, meeting and gallery space.  In the late 1990s, the Trustees and the director at the time, Tessa Jackson, created a brief with clear objectives to improve the building, and set about appointing a design team to achieve their ambitions.  The architects, Snell Associates, were interviewed in November 1998, one month before the design team artist, Susanna Heron.  Robin Snell of Snell Associates and project manager John Monahan participated in the selection panel for Susanna's interview.  Both appointments were confirmed by February 1999.


The overall objective of the redevelopment was to increase and enhance the Arnolfini's artistic programme, while simultaneously improving facilities for artists, audiences and staff.

In order to achieve this aim, there were a number of other objectives that the design process had to address:

  • To improve the entrance and foyer, and provide a sense of arrival
  • To clarify the building, improve circulation and legibility, and encourage crossover between programme strands
  • To bring light, air and space into the building
  • To increase and improve gallery space, daylight and lighting
  • To introduce new facilities for production, education, seminars
  • To ensure all spaces were fully accessible

Setting up the process

Tessa Jackson, director of the Arnolfini at the time, was central in setting up the brief and the design team to take forward the redevelopment project.  Architect and artist were appointed in quick succession, with the original expectation that the artist would work both as an integral member of the design team and would also create a work for the newly configured building.  Initial funding for the artist’s fees came from a successful bid to the RSA’s Art for Architecture scheme.

The original brief also required a design for a new building on the quayside to house a restaurant, and the initial scheme showed a collaborative design for this facility between artist and architect.

Developing the process - for artist, architect and client

For Susanna Heron, it quickly became clear that trying to fulfil both a design team role and a commissioned artist role created confusion.  She felt it was inappropriate to create a permanent work for a building which would be showing changing works and temporary events.  She therefore concentrated on the design team aspect of the project, attending weekly meetings and making gallery visits to other venues with the team, contributing to and following through the process in the same way to all of the other design team members' services engineers, structural engineers and project managers.

For Robin Snell, working with Susanna was in one way no different to working with other consultants on the design team.  His practice likes to work in a way which 'absorbs' ideas and thoughts from all sectors, before producing any drawings, and so it is conducive to working with artists.  Susanna's views and opinions were from a completely different experience and understanding, and she brought a very different sensibility to the design team. He also felt that although artist and architect needed to get on well, (and the interview process was important in establishing this empathy), there was an important 'creative friction' between himself and Susanna in developing design ideas.

In essence, Susanna worked to ensure the artist's viewpoint of a gallery was embedded within the design process.  Every aspect was examined to make sure it was fit for purpose as part of an international contemporary arts building, as well as being a good piece of architectural design.  Susanna's own practice is very much about space, views and how people move and use different spaces and places, and this clearly contributed to the way in which she contributed to the development of the overall design.

From the client's point of view, it was a great advantage to have a reinforcing voice and advocate for the arts on the design team.  The lack of a formal hierarchy and strictly defined role for Susanna on the design team meant that she could work directly with the client as well as the architect, enabling the incorporation of ideas generated from different sources.

Design development, financial realities and critical points

As the design of the new building slowly developed, it became obvious just how problematic it was to work with the existing building.  The idea for the quayside restaurant was shelved, as every piece of funding was going to be needed to create the new Arnolfini.  Most difficult of all was the fact that the Arnolfini did not own the building it occupied, and could only use two floors.

An 'eureka moment' as Robin Snell describes it, dramatically changed the course of the project, when Arts Council England's National Lottery scheme agreed that the Arnolfini could receive substantial funding, some of which could be used to purchase the whole building.  This provided a new way of looking at the project, and the defining feature, the internal central staircase which opens up the entire building, was hatched out by architect and artist in a coffee bar across the road from the architect's office, fuelled by numerous discussions and conversations on train journeys back from Bristol to London (see Robin Snell's original sketch signed RS/SH).

For Robin Snell, the punching of a hole in the centre of the building made reference to the design of a Renaissance palazzo, with the circulation space in the centre of the building from which all rooms emanate, allowing light and ventilation to the middle of a deep plan city block. This is particularly appropriate, as the existing Grade II * Arnolfini was designed and built in 1830 in the style of an Italian palazzo.

As Susanna Heron notes, the feature of a central foyer space also acknowledged the fact that they were building arts spaces in essentially a dark warehouse, yet it allowed light, connection and space into the heart of the building.  It answered one of the specific requirements of the original brief, to address 'bulge' points when audiences exit from films and events, and it has created a new social space with enjoyable acoustics. 

A second phase, as yet unrealised, concerns the quayside development to provide a new external presence for Arnolfini, and this involves a direct commission to Susanna using light.  Funding is still being sought for this.

One direct commission to an artist was completed during the redevelopment - the refurbishment of the café bar was to a design by Bruce Mclean working with the architects - a new space to replace the commission he had completed some 20 years earlier.

In use

The Arnolfini reopened on 10 September 2005, with a new director, Tom Trevor, taking up his post one month later.  He feels the 'fantastic refurbishment' means the Arnolfini can really live up to its international reputation.  Audience figures have increased and all galleries, project spaces and meetings rooms are in constant use.  The building is legible and can take both large scale and intimate works.   The involvement of the artist in the design has resulted in a space which artists can really use, and he feels this project provides a model 'artist on design team' scheme.

Key issues

  • Artist as design team member, with no direct commission

    The way that Susanna Heron worked with Robin Snell was vital to the final design and feel of the refurbished building. As well as collaborating on the design, she also worked as an integral member of the design team, and in the same way that other experts work on design teams, she brought her particular skills, knowledge and experience, as well as her artist’s sensibilities to the table. The lack of a direct commission reinforces rather than diminishes the importance of her role to the overall project.

  • Changing clients

    The design team worked with two successive clients during the long process of the redevelopment. Although changing client personnel can sometimes be problematic, this worked well in this instance. Both were seen as excellent clients, with Tessa Jackson's energy and vision enabling the initial set up and the project to begin at all, and Caroline Collier’s dedication through the lengthy second phase to realise the project on the ground. Caroline came in after the lottery award was made in late 2001, and followed through the whole of the detailed design and build process with vigour and determination.

  • Length of process

    The length of the process has allowed the design to mature and develop fully, in the architect’s view, and although seven years is a long time to wait, had things been rushed through before the purchase of the building, the end product may have been very different indeed.


Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol BS1 4QA

Box office and general enquiries: Tel: 0117 917 2300

Snell Associates, 22 Abbey Gardens, London NW8 9AT

Tel: 020 7625 7089

© Copyright Hazel Colquhoun, 2006