Like the art of carnival itself, Ash Sakula’s new UK Carnival Arts Centre in downtown Luton is ‘strange, shambolic and magnificent’.
It consists of two new buildings astride a large courtyard with a continuous enclosing perimeter, part brickwork, part screen, both 4.5m high. Two large gates, one gold, one stainless steel mesh, break the enclosure at either end of the courtyard, a courtyard which is transformed into a street as part of the carnival route.
The larger mas camp building houses performance spaces, a state of the art workshop, teaching spaces and café. The smaller building hosts administrative offices, the national carnival archive, incubator units and a crèche. The courtyard is a both-and space: a green conversational lung, a spillover space for workshop and performance and a new street for carnival.
The brief asked for a building that reflects ‘the spirit of carnival’. To us that meant capturing some of the kinetic energy and materiality of carnival. Our choice of materials was led by this ambition, for the building to engender a sense of making and experimentation and a tactile, textural quality.
And yet, while the façade craved attention it didn’t want to be an essay in tricksy bling. Like architects, carnival artists have a deep interest in materials. They work at the edge of possibility, designing kinetic structures the size of houses light enough to be carried all day on someone’s back. They are not a lay audience: they know when a junction is fudged. To win their respect the construction had to be well done, to be tough and robust and have some serious logic behind its playfulness.
We chose two bricks, a smooth blue engineering brick and a white, with a thin 5mm glued joint. The glued brickwork forms a continuous wrap round the main building, broken only by full height display windows. Ikat patterns in white brick, based on samba acoustic rhythms, are stitched into the blue brick on either side of each opening, creating a rhythm that stretches the eye right around the building.
The parts of the building that face the courtyard are a loose composition of separate elements using a multitude of materials: gold and silver metal cladding, timber, glass, brick and stainless steel. Together they create a village of different architectural forms, rather than a single piece of architecture.
Above it all spinning sky signs spell out ‘carnival arts’. And like carnival dancers they sometimes spin so fast you are not quite sure what it is you are seeing.