Between Memory and Progress: Negotiating Infrastructure and Innovation in The Nottingham Contemporary Building

Written by Erika Kindsfather
Edited by Madeleine Cruickshank

In 2004, after their success in winning the architectural design contest posed by the Nottingham City Council, the architecture firm Caruso St. John, consisting of architects Adam Caruso and Peter St. John, began the project of building a contemporary art center in the British city of Nottingham called the Nottingham Contemporary (Fig. 1.)[1] The city council provided the functional framework of the commission; the building to be erected in the city’s Creative District would house four exhibitions of international contemporary art a year, while asserting the client’s dedication to serving a local audience.[2] The core of the commission’s agenda places the very concept of the building in a liminal space between local culture and international contemporaneity. Further highlighting this tension between locality and internationality, the plot chosen to accommodate the Nottingham Contemporary is situated in the city’s historic industrial Lace Market of contemporary Nottingham.[3] I argue that the building itself serves as a symbolic space of cultural ambiguity in a contemporary global society and collective memory in Nottingham as it poses two key juxtapositions between its aesthetics and function. That is, while the façade of the building directly references the district’s history of lace production (Fig. 2.), the interior program must accommodate an ever-changing milieu of contemporary artworks, both object and performance-based. I will analyze the duality of the building’s material and exterior ornament, examine the ontology of a museum space and the accommodations that a contemporary museum space requires specifically, and address the limits of negotiating a space that evokes local history while accommodating the spatial possibilities of contemporary art objects and performances.

Figure 1. Caruso St. John. Nottingham Contemporary (View). Nottingham, Great Britain. 2009. Print Image. Found in David Phillips, Detail in contemporary concrete architecture. London: Laurence King Publishing. 2012. 22. © Edmund Sumner.

Adam Caruso of Caruso St. John describes the exterior of buildings as “skin” in his essay Towards the Ontology of Construction.[4] He examines the case of the Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and Rotterdam Van Nelle in Rotterdam and concludes, “today the nuances of language that make up these architectures only exist as an intellectual discourse and do not operate at the emotional level that would have engaged the original audiences of these buildings. And yet, we are still emotionally affected by these structures.”[5] He then moves to suggest that the factor of emotional engagement between the contemporary eye, seeing the building removed from its original context, and the building occurs as a result of the beholder’s visceral response to “the more general culture of their construction.”[6] Caruso’s understanding of a link between construction, or a building’s material properties, and emotion, or the beholder’s visceral response to such, is central to my understanding of the Nottingham Contemporary’s façade.


Figure 2. Machine-Made Valenciennes Lace. Nottingham, Great Britain. 1847. Print Image. Found in “Nottingham Contemporary,” El Croquis. Vol. 166. (2013). 168.

Caruso St. John used digital programming to transfer a specific pattern of Nottingham lace (Fig. 2.) and manipulate the image to create a motif.[7] Then, the programmed image was applied to a three-dimensional code, which was applied to machine coding instructions.[8] The exterior panels themselves, which are the surfaces that depict the lace motif, were created using a pre-cast green concrete method, involving the creation of a digitally rendered green latex mold of the design to yield multiple panels of poured concrete.[9] The individual panels (Fig. 3.) were then affixed to the building’s structural frame, creating a repeated cladding that bears a textured lace motif. The highly technical process of creating the cladding to affix to the building’s structural framework speaks to the joining of collective cultural memory through contemporary means. That is, while the cladding serves as an ornamented exterior “skin” to the building, the entire ornamentation process relied heavily on digital and contemporary building technologies. Further, the imprinted concrete units are not integral to the building’s structural properties, but rather fixed to the façade for aesthetic purposes. This is clearly articulated in plan drawings showing the structural logic of the building, where reinforced concrete walls serve as the integral support structure upon which the decorative panels are fixed (Fig. 4). Returning to Caruso’s comments regarding a building’s skin and the construction of exteriors, I propose that the non-functional nature and technical production of the concrete adheres to his theoretical proposition linking the beholder’s emotional response to a building and “the more general culture of [its] construction.”[10] While lace is a recognizable fabric motif, the specificity of Nottingham-produced lace and the site’s history adds an element of local significance that transcends the function of lace as decoration. Further, traditional lace serves an interior ornamental function, and the appropriation of the motif of an interior product onto the façade of a building confirms the symbolic nature of the ornamental cladding.

Figure 3. Caruso St. John. Nottingham Contemporary (Panel Detail View). Nottingham, Great Britain. 2009. Digital Image. Found on

The demanding technical process of creating the pre-cast concrete blocks speaks to the contemporaneity in which the building itself was produced that made the symbolic exterior possible. While the lace-print cladding references the site’s historical significance, it does not attempt to mimic the program or forms of pre-existing buildings around it. In Urban Design: Ornament and Decoration, the authors describe the function of architectural exterior ornament as to “enrich the decorative themes of a locality.”[11] Yet the Nottingham Contemporary façade strays greatly from that of the historical lace factories that occupy the same district. The authors note that the Rogers factory (Fig. 5.) built in 1879, presented “austere façades complemented and counterpointed by the deliberately embellished doorways and entrances. Industrialists… concentrated on decoration at ground level.”[12] The façades of lace factories were evidently about demonstrating wealth strategically to individuals moving within the city space and experiencing the façade at eye level. That is, these buildings were not ornamented beyond the function of presenting the appearance of opulence at the entrance. The Nottingham Contemporary, however, is cladded in the decorative concrete panels consistently around the building’s exterior structure (Fig. 1.), rather than concentrated around an entrance point. The exterior materials communicate the building’s newness, using vertical aluminum roof panels[13] and an alternating repetition of aluminum and pre-cast concrete with intricacies and precision only achievable with machine and digital technology. In Young British Architects, Jeremy Melvin goes so far as to state that the architectural style has an “elemental nature: to distinguish what is old from what is new.”[14] The architects themselves carry a “specifically English approach to using materials” while being among the most internationally-present British architects.[15] In summary, the Nottingham Contemporary façade does not seek to conceal its newness with a mimicking of styles of the pre-existing architectural compositions of the district, but rather highlights its contemporaneity, and thus its ultimate purpose, while referencing the collective historical memory of the Nottingham site.

Figure 4. Caruso St. John. Nottingham Contemporary (Cladding, Structure and Insulation Detail Plan). Nottingham, Great Britain. 2009. Print Image. Found in David Phillips, Detail in contemporary concrete architecture. London: Laurence King Publishing. 2012. 24.

To fully understand the duality of contemporary progress and local memory presented in the Nottingham Contemporary building’s case, one must move to the interior and the program of the art center itself. Caruso St. John “set out to offer a wide range of interiors that will have the variety and specificity of the found spaces of a factory or warehouse, within a new building: rooms that will challenge the installation and production of contemporary art and offer new ways for performers and audiences to interact.”[16] In stating this, the architects identified the key demand of a contemporary art space with changing exhibitions as requiring spatial flexibility. In execution, the gallery rooms are pieced together not as clean square spaces, but rather a variety of irregular rectangular shapes that unfold into one another and create an intimate performative environment. Though the interior itself (Fig. 6.) lacks any Nottingham-produced textile art, focusing more on offering the city a space to experience international contemporary works, the interior program is meant to reference the “found spaces of a factory or a warehouse”[17] with its irregularity and exposed raw material interior surfaces. Like the exterior cladding, the interior program, though manipulated to accommodate an impermanent and varied collection of artwork, references the potential interiors of spaces that have historically occupied the same district of Nottingham. While a contemporary art space demands flexibility to accommodate not only the changes in artistic media, scale, and display potentials but also allow for a turnover of exhibitions rapidly to provide a span of cultural experiences to the public, Caruso St. John attempted to conceal this impermanence of space in referencing interiors of monotonous industrial activity.

Figure 5. T.C. Hine or Watson Fothergill. Rogers Factory. Nottingham, Great Britain. 1879. Print Image. Found in Cliff Moughtin, Taner Oc, and Steven Tiesdell. “Urban design: ornament and decoration. Oxford: Butterworth Architecture. 1995. 42.

In Alexandra Lange’s article, “What Should a Museum Be?”, she details the goals of museum creators historically, arriving at the complicated present of museum creation.[18]  She focuses on the theories and criticisms of Herbert Muschamp, an American architecture critic, in his writing “A Miracle in Bilbao”.[19] Muschamp sought a local cultural emergence of Basque artists in Bilbao following the creation of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Ghery with the intention of drawing cultural attention to revitalize the once-industrial city.[20] Lange asserts that there is little evidence of the Guggenheim’s creation as sparking a “new generation of Basque artists,”[21] concluding that the project spawned an international urban architectural fabric in the city of Bilbao. The duality of the Nottingham Contemporary building, a tension between local and international intention and ideation, perhaps addresses the problem of a contemporary art center initiating a globalization of a city rather than an integration of local culture and the global essentialism of contemporary society. The Nottingham Contemporary not only references the historical significance of the Nottingham Lace Market district in which it sits through the cladding and, more obscurely, the interior program, but also employs architects whose style, though meeting the demands of an international pool of clients, also is described as “specifically British.”[22] The Nottingham Contemporary itself, then, becomes a symbolic architectural monument in the city of Nottingham, celebrating the city’s rich industrial history while embracing the cultural demands and infrastructure of contemporary society.

Figure 6. Caruso St. John.  Nottingham Contemporary (Cross-Section, Mazzanine Floor and Ground Floor Plan). Nottingham, Great Britain. 2009. Print Image. Found in El Croquis. Vol. 166. (2013). 156.

In his essay, “The Art Museum: Art, Environment, Imagination”, Dean Hawkes describes the institutionalization of the art museum as it moved through historical methods of organization, leading to the adoption of distinct architectural characteristics.[23] I argue that the Nottingham Contemporary’s aesthetic and functional tensions between local memory and international integration place the building itself in a liminal space in the city’s overall framework, as it differs from the institutional infrastructure of a permanent collection- based art museum which does not permit the same interior flexibility as the changing collection of the contemporary community art space. This adds a dimension of local experience to both the exterior and interior of the building, creating a symbolic movement from the overt reference to the function of historic buildings in the Lace Market with the pre-cast concrete cladding on the building’s exterior, to an interior space occupied entirely by temporary contemporary art exhibitions. The art center visitors therefore experience the symbolic process of occupying a space that reflects the desires of the city itself. While the building presents a historic richness and significance on its urban exterior, it contains the cultural expansiveness of a contemporary interior framework, demonstrating the city’s interest to assert itself as a site of cultural significance inclusive of and expanding beyond its history.

[1] “Nottingham Contemporary,” El Croquis. Vol. 166. (2013). 148-175.
[2] “About Us,” Nottingham Contemporary, accessed May 30, 2016,
[3] “Documentation: A Museum in Nottingham,” Detail: Review of Architecture and Construction Details 2 (2010): 128.
[4] Adam Caruso, “ Towards the Ontology of Construction,” In Caruso St. John: knitting, weaving, wrapping, pressing: stricken, weben, einhüllen, prägen. (Basel: Birkhäuser. Architekturgalerie (Lucerne, Switzerland), 2002), 6.
[5] Caruso, “ Towards the Ontology of Construction,” 8.
[6] Ibid. 4.
[7] Ibid. 3.
[8] Ibid. 3.
[9] Ibid. 3.
[10] Ibid. 4.
[11] Cliff Moughtin, Taner Oc, and Steven Tiesdell, Urban design: ornament and decoration. (Oxford: Butterworth Architecture, 1995), 1.
[12] Cliff Moughtin, Taner Oc, and Steven Tiesdell, “The Façade,” in Urban design: ornament and decoration. (Oxford: Butterworth Architecture, 1995), 42.
[13]David Phillips and Megumi Yamashita. Detail in contemporary concrete architecture. (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2012), 22.
[14] Jeremy Melvin. Young British architects. (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2000), 38.
[15] Ibid. 14.
[16] “Project Information: Nottingham Contemporary,” Caruso St. John Architects, accessed May 30, 2016,
[17] Ibid. 16.
[18] Alexandra Lange, and Jeremy M. Lange, “What Should a Museum Be?” in Writing about architecture mastering the language of buildings and cities, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), 58.
[19] Lange, “What Should a Museum Be?” 61.
[20] Ibid. 19.
[21] Lange, “What Should a Museum Be?” 65.
[22] Ibid. 14.
[23] Dean Hawkes, “The Art Museum: Art, Environment, Imagination” in The Environmental Imagination: technics and poetics of the architectural environment, (London: Routledge, 2008), 157.

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