firstsite’s new building was designed by the Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly. His design was selected by a worldwide architectural competition that attracted more than 100 entries.
Rafael Viñoly Architects PC are also creators of the Curve centre for the performing arts in Leicester, and the recently completed masterplan for London’s Battersea Power Station redevelopment.
firstsite’s crescent shape was created to wrap around the existing D-shaped garden of East Hill House, leaving intact the established arc of mature trees.
Its low-lying, single-storey design nestles in the landscape, with minimum disruption to Colchester’s historic roofscape.
firstsite is built on a steel frame, and clad entirely in TECU Gold – a malleable copper-aluminium alloy that had to be applied by hand by a team of plumbers!
The building lies on Scheduled Ancient Monument land, with archaeological artefacts buried beneath. This meant a ‘no-dig’ policy: conventional foundations could not be dug.
Instead, the vast 3,200 square metre building is supported by a giant concrete ‘raft’, which floats above the ground.
Step inside firstsite
firstsite’s spectacular front portico rises to 11 metres high, and frames the lobby with imposing full-height glazing.
An interior promenade carries visitors from the vast entrance space which comprises exhibition space and a shop selling creative gifts, through the outer curve of the building, past the gallery spaces, and through to MUSA Café Restaurant at the rear.
The building is lit throughout with natural light, using wide glazing on the inside arc, high-level ‘clerestory’ windows in the Mosaic space and restaurant, and on the outside arc, by a narrow strip of glazing at floor level that maximises the use of daylight from morning until dusk.
firstsite’s state-of-the-art auditorium seats 190 people and boasts a six-metre tab tension screen.
Clad with overlapping cherrywood panels, it will be used for screenings, lectures, presentations and performances.
Visit our Spaces for hire page to find out more about the Auditorium and its adjacent meeting rooms.
firstsite’s gallery spaces lie towards the rear of the building.
They include the Giles and Sonia Coode-Adams Gallery and the Foundation for Sport and the Arts Gallery, a climate-controlled, museum-quality hanging space.
The Mosaic space
At the heart of the firstsite building is the Berryfield Mosaic, a Roman artefact unearthed in 1923 on the site on which the building now stands.
The Mosaic has been painstakingly cleaned and returned to its original home, as firstsite’s only permanent exhibit.
The University Space is at the heart of firstsite's building, displaying University-related exhibitions and research, including those curated by ESCALA, Essex Collection of Art in Latin America. The University of Essex is one of the UK's leading academic institutions and a longstanding partner of firstsite.
Café Restaurant MUSA
Firstsite’s contemporary café restaurant sits 84 people indoors, and a further 44 on its outdoor terrace.
It is open every day, serving a modern British menu, to gallery visitors and the general public.
We have made a short film in which Project Architect Julian Kinal takes you on a tour of the building from an architect's point of view.