If ever proof had been wanted that high quality of structure isn’t any barrier to reputation, it may be discovered within the plucky port metropolis of Plymouth. Its Drake Circus procuring centre, a automotive crash of cladding, was awarded the Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest constructing within the UK when it opened in 2006. But it has since grow to be the beloved, beating coronary heart of the town. The Beckley Level scholar housing growth, a Stalinesque ziggurat topped with an ungainly spire, was additionally shortlisted for the hated award in 2018. Locals immediately rallied to its defence, praising it as “the perfect constructing in Plymouth for 20 years”, bringing an exciting “contact of Las Vegas” by night time.
And so we come to the Field, the town’s new £46m museum and gallery, hailed as the most important cultural centre in south-west England, and proud bearer of “Europe’s largest unsupported cantilever”. It’s a becoming title for an enormous clumsy field that has been plonked on prime of the town’s Edwardian museum and artwork gallery, as if an out-of-town storage shed obtained blown right here in a gale.
However as soon as once more, first impressions may be misleading. It will not be a factor of magnificence, however this massive, sensible construction supplies a welcome addition to the town, creating a brand new dwelling for a energetic programme of exhibitions and storage for the 2m-strong assortment, in premises thrice the dimensions of the unique museum. It may be nominated for additional awards of ugliness, however that’s unlikely to place anybody off, or dent the town’s pleasure on this spectacular achievement.

The Field peeking from behind its Edwardian neighbour. {Photograph}: Courtesy Paul White Images
“We wished it to really feel like we had been holding the town’s treasures as much as the sky,” says Caroline Cozens, strategic tasks supervisor at Plymouth Metropolis Council, standing beneath the massive sparkly shed, which stands proud a precipitous eight metres past the unique constructing. “It’s a valuable jewelry field for all to see, and we hope it is going to be a catalyst for a unique sort of regeneration.”
Clad with 2,000 aluminium panels of various shades, the archival field and galleries beneath are the work of Atkins, a multinational behemoth, whose multidisciplinary portfolio brims with all the pieces from super-sewers to ecocities. Like Plymouth, Atkins has been twice nominated for the Carbuncle Cup (for Newport Station and Oakfield Major Faculty in Rugby), and is healthier identified for engineering brawn behind the scenes than the sort of architectural finesse anticipated of a cultural centre. The architects weren’t chosen by a global competitors, as a challenge of this magnitude may often dictate, however plucked off an current council framework – in the identical manner as procuring a waste administration contract.

Over the ocean … restored ships’ figureheads. {Photograph}: Wayne Perry/PA
Given this inauspicious starting, the ensuing advanced is surprisingly profitable; it has created a spot the place the content material and ambition principally outweigh the niggles of the constructing itself. A very powerful a part of the challenge is its contribution to metropolis, in opening up the useless house behind the museum to create a brand new piazza between the museum and St Luke’s, a Unitarian church from 1828 that has been renovated as a up to date gallery below the scheme. It contains a fantastic exterior pulpit, the place clergymen as soon as preached to the road, which now you can scamper as much as declaim to crowds gathered within the new sq.. The stained glass home windows have been restored and at the moment are lit from behind, creating alluring lightboxes at night time, whereas new routes have been opened by the location, linking the college to scholar housing past.
Coming into the Field itself by a quite company glazed foyer, guests are greeted by an impressive flotilla of brightly painted ships’ figureheads floating overhead. These huge items of carved timber, some weighing as much as two tonnes, lead previous the inevitable cafe and present store to a collection of galleries that inform Plymouth’s vibrant historical past by the ages, principally housed in rooms within the authentic Edwardian constructing. Exhibition designers Occasion have crafted a superb steadiness, combining loads of objects from the gathering with 3D projection-mapped fashions and interactive digital globes, to inform the story of 100 voyages that started in Plymouth, from Francis Drake’s to Greta Thunberg’s. The choice to eliminate captions in favour of interactive touchscreens now appears much less sensible within the Covid context – however the museum says that styluses might be supplied.
Different galleries showcase the brilliantly assorted provincial assortment, which mixes the council’s personal museum holdings, the town’s archives, movie and images from the South West Movie and Tv Archive and the South West Picture Financial institution, with shows starting from early transferring photos to pickled sea creatures in jars, birds’ eggs and a big woolly mammoth. In locations, the unique Edwardian inside shines by, together with components of the 1950s library, rebuilt after the warfare. They carry welcome stretches of ornamental terrazzo flooring, wood panelling and a wonderful mural to Atkins’ in any other case workmanlike interiors of gray carpet tiles, suspended ceilings and glass balustrades topped with stainless-steel handrails – a municipal aesthetic extra harking back to a council workplace than a palace of tradition.

Faces of descendants associated to the Mayflower. {Photograph}: Andrew Matthews/PA
Lastly, there’s the precise field of the Field, the huge floating concrete container that homes the remainder of the archive in climate-controlled stacks. “A museum tends to be a bit like an iceberg,” says Cozens, “solely ever having a tiny share of the gathering on show at anybody time.” The remaining is often underground, or saved off-site, however Plymouth has flipped the iceberg, placing its secure within the sky. The first motive, it appears, was to draw funding.
“The ‘floating treasure chest’ was the imaginative and prescient that the funders may purchase into,” Cozens explains, referring to the Nationwide Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, which co-funded the challenge with the council. Many museums at the moment are making a characteristic of their archives, from the Boijmans Museum’s nice shiny salad bowl in Rotterdam, to the V&A’s forthcoming open storage centre in Stratford. However Plymouth’s vault received’t be open to the general public; it’s back-of-house thrust centre stage. Given it’s the main seen gesture of the challenge – certainly the very characteristic that gave it its title – it appears perverse to not make it accessible.

Protected … Antony Gormley’s sculpture Look II stares out from Plymouth Hoe. {Photograph}: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Photographs
There may nicely have been extra clever and chic methods to spend £46m, with higher consideration lavished on the organisation of the constructing and the craft of its making. The council’s selection of Atkins was much like its selection of Antony Gormley for its new waterfront sculpture: unoriginal and uninspiring, however a secure pair of fingers that finally delivers on its aims. Subsequent time, they could have the braveness and confidence to intention just a little larger – not that any criticism is more likely to dampen native enthusiasm for this massive, daring beacon.
• The Field, Plymouth, opens to the general public on 29 September