Although the new facility for the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands was not completed until early 2012, the designs were drawn up almost 13 years ago.
Danny Owens, founder of OA&D Architects, won the original competition hosted by the National Gallery in 1999, in which local architects were invited to submit their designs for a new facility.
“Something about the site or the users and function of a building are my usual starting points in design,” he explains. And, having designed a museum for his thesis project, he was able to borrow some ideas from that for his National Gallery designs.
With function and purpose established he was able to give it a unique personality. “From this start I select a theme or narrative that weaves its way through the design, which the building should convey to the users and the public”.
Because the NGCI is created for, and owned by, the people of Cayman and because of his own interest in Caymanian history and culture, his original design intent sought to bring in different aspects of the Islands’ heritage: the connection to water was particularly important, and reflected in a workshop that was shaped like a boat, the bow of which would be built on the lake (which would be an extension of the water feature at the adjacent FJ Harquail theatre site) and semi submerged stones in the lake would represent turtles surfacing.
Thatch rope, quarried rock and sculptures of fishermen were all included in the earliest designs.
As budgets were revised and ideas developed over the years, the original designs had to evolve, in line with the budget, needs and function of the gallery. The two buildings which are now complete represent just the first phase of a larger project envisaged by Danny, but remain true to his very earliest sketches.
The design of the two buildings reflects their very different functions. “There is a play between the two buildings,” Danny explains. “One [the exhibition space] is very formal with a grand entrance, an impressive portico, the columns and the two storey height. The second [the education centre] is more informal, more playful. It is more domestic in its function and not so much a public space.”
The first building uses very geometric, primary shapes: a solid, square base crowned by the pyramid-shaped skylight. The second is all rippling curves and free-form shapes.
The first building was not always planned as an exhibition space. Danny’s vision had been for this to be a “grand, welcoming space” two storeys high, with no floor between the lower and upper levels, just a gallery around the perimeter of the upper level, with the exhibition space in a completely separate building.
Due to financial constraints, however, plans were revised and this entry building turned into the primary exhibition space. The skylight, originally designed as an all-glass structure had to be modified for this new purpose: it was feared direct sunlight might damage the artwork and the costs of cooling such a space could prove prohibitive. (cut if needed)
Despite numerous adjustments, modifications and a general evolution from the early sketches to the finished product, the fundamentals of the original design remain unchanged. The fact that the design remains visually striking, and looks just as modern today as it did when he first sketched out his ideas 13 years ago, is testament to Danny’s vision.
“The fact that it still looks fresh and sharp is the strongest aspect of the design, and one that sells our philosophy on architecture. It’s a design that stands the test of time.”