Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art

by | 23. Jul 2012

Cultural | Extention/ redesign | Project

Photo © Edmund Sumner


The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art was a disused flour silo sited on the south bank of the river Tyne in Gateshead.

In 1994, Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council invited architects to submit ideas for the conversion of the Baltic Flour Mills into a Contemporary art gallery. The objective was to provide a national and international Centre for Contemporary visual arts.

The assessors were unanimous in their recommendation of the winning design by Ellis Williams Architects who, they believed, had the ability and fertility of imagination to transform this major structure and its surrounds into a cultural centre unique to the North of England.

The main aim is to allow contemporary art to happen in whatever form it takes. Often ‘art’ installations take on, or pervert, the nature of the space they occupy. The original function of the building was to collect, contain and distribute flour through the unseen workings of the silos. In many ways these activities would be unchanged, with the building now refocused to a new use.

Works will come, be created, and travel on from the place, the function less secret though still housed between its sheer walls. Components such as the gallery floors, café and library, will be inserted between these two walls to create a new living body within the building.

/ Dominic Williams
In conversation with Jack Barfoot, 1995

Photo © Edmund Sumner


Photo © Edmund Sumner


The design can be described conceptually as the hollowing out of the internal existing concrete silo structure, and the opening of the east and west walls, leaving two parallel monolithic brick walls to the North and South. The main public entrance is marked by light crosses embedded in the ground and leads the visitor from the new Baltic square, and through the riverside building to the first gallery at ground level opposite the lift stacks.

These walls are supported by concrete fins, part of the original silo structure, thereby suspending the four new floors and a new glazed roof top restaurant providing spectacular views of the surrounding cityscape. These new levels are accessed from lifts rising through metal fins in a void which echo the original silo structure.


Photo © Edmund Sumner


The vertical nature of the building, and the arrangement of the gallery floors, gives the building a high level of flexibility in the opening and closing of spaces; paramount for the highly unpredictable nature of contemporary art. The riverside building connects the gallery building to the new square at the west end by means of information points and a glass link. This building includes a café over the entrance route with a riverside terrace, a brasserie off the Baltic square and a bookshop.


Photo © Edmund Sumner


Above level four the viewing box projects over the west facade of the building. This encloses two levels with a visitors platform providing views over the River Tyne to the city beyond. An information point could be located in the viewing gallery from which the visitor can descend in the lifts allowing views out to the city and glimpses into the gallery spaces.


Photo © Edmund Sumner


Artworks and other deliveries enter under the fabric wing shade at the east end of the building. Accommodated in the building is a loading bay with adjacent crate storage areas. The arts lift, the size of a small house, will allow for very large pieces of work to be transported around the building.

The gallery building is surmounted by a lightweight steel and glass structure. Conceptually the structure is seen to ‘float’ between the two monolithic brick and corten steel walls and at night internal lighting would make the activity fully visible to the surrounding areas.

The towers are dedicated to vertical movement for fire escape stairs and workers access between gallery levels. The existing towers were empty facades and the new design completes them by reforming missing sides in corten steel.


Photo © Edmund Sumner



Photo © Edmund Sumner


What impresses most is not the scale and ambition of the building – we have seen this before at Tate Modern – but the views out to the city from every floor, the wonderful quality of light, the subtle play of architectural space, and the sheer, almost bloody-minded battleship quality of this machine built for making art in.

The old brick exterior of the building is purely a dress over the new structure inside. What were massive concrete silos are now light-washed, timber-floored galleries as generous as any in the world.

/ Jonathan Glancey,  The Guardian

The gallery spaces on all four levels, including ground, can accommodate a variety of exhibition layouts with a flexible lighting grid and partition system. The flexibility of these spaces and the ease of movement within the building allow the total transformation of the galleries by artists and curators. A flexible structural grid with the possibility of removing certain floor plates also exists.


Photo © Edmund Sumner



Photo © Edmund Sumner



Photo © Edmund Sumner



Photo © Edmund Sumner


The main external palette of materials ranges from light weight natural aluminum panels which are used to clad new parts, while in contrast, heavy weight corten steel panels are use to reform missing parts of the existing brickwork structure and also lead the visitor through the riverside building. Internally and apart from slate, which paves the ground floors and external areas, arctic fur is used to create all the main floors. Gallery spaces walls and ceilings are left a neutral white, whilst aluminum is bought back into some of the public areas.

Orientation and information areas are located at each main public level connecting the main gallery spaces from which the visitor can move around the building either by stair or lift. These areas allow light to filter down the lifts void aided by the large glass facade on the west end of the building. Entry to the gallery spaces is from these orientation areas. The vertical circulation gives easy access to galleries, with the ability to provide one or two way movement around the main spaces.


Sketch courtesy Dominic Williams



Sketch courtesy Dominic Williams



Drawing courtesy Ellis Williams Architects Plan Level One



Drawing courtesy Ellis Williams Architects Plan Level Two



Drawing courtesy Ellis Williams Architects Plan Level Three & Four



Drawing courtesy Ellis Williams Architects Section



COUNTRYUnited Kingdom