Timber is the new concrete, according to Alex de Rijke of dRMM, the award-winning architectural firm behind the transformation of Modern Art Oxford, writes Gill Oliver.

His pronouncement comes while pointing out that MAO’s new ground-level entrance and covered courtyard on St Ebbes Street is made primarily from timber.

But this is not just any old timber, this is dRMM timber where the wood is cross-laminated to make it stronger.

“It means you can use it a bit like an architectural substitute for concrete. It can do anything concrete can do but without producing the carbon — on the contrary, absorbing it,” Alex explained.

“The new space we have created at MAO retains the old tarmac floor of the storage yard. We just defined it using timber panels which are pre-fabricated giant boards,” he added.

The use of engineered timber is something that London-based dRMM has been pioneering for long while and is fundamental to the way Alex de Rijke and his fellow directors approach each project.

“I see architecture as a progression of the use of materials. There are many other considerations, obviously, but if you analyse the history of architecture in terms of materials.

“You could say that the 18th century was characterised by brick, the 19th century was the era of steel and the 20th century was the era of concrete.

“My prediction is that the 21st century will be remembered as the time when engineered timber rescued the world from the carbon issue, and the problem that the construction industry has about how to build ambitiously without messing up the planet.”

He recalled that dRMM’s brief included the refurbishment of the gallery’s existing services such as the café and entry areas, plus a new multi-use space for a changing programme of contemporary films, exhibitions and installations.

Few would dispute that this challenge was well met, with the added bonus of transforming the old delivery bay into a new type of gallery space.

De Rijke describes it as “a storefront gallery venue” and it was his concept that this voluminous 5x5x15m lobby space should be deliberately positioned as an installation work, not permanent, plastered or white but carefully constructed from massive 3x13.5m engineered timber panels.

Throw in a unique facade/shutter design, furniture and mobile café bar by artist Richard Woods, and the project more than lives up to its avowed aim of presenting gallery architecture as “useful art”.

“The courtyard is a big space that was being used importantly but infrequently,” Alex pointed out.

“It was a large space that was characterised by the kind of industrial and functional requirements of both the gallery it is now, and in its previous time as a brewery.

“We thought this was a great opportunity to design it in the style of a store-front gallery. We saw the possibility of making a new type of gallery space which is the kind of thing you might stumble across in New York.

“In the UK, galleries always separate exhibition spaces from events spaces from cafés, and so on.

“Not only does this combine all three but it is possible to have a coffee or a beer and look at art, listen to music, or simply chill out.

“One of the most important elements is that it is now a ground-level entrance giving direct street-level access to the gallery ground floor, which was never possible before because of the steps up,” he added.

His firm, which has received much critical acclaim for its work on cultural and educational buildings, was undaunted by the fact that the MAO project was on a relatively tight budget.

“It was clear from the outset that the budget was a limited one and it was a question of focusing on refurbishing the services in the existing building, the toilets and so on.

“The money was not exclusively spent on the courtyard. We have made a new space that is very dramatic but it does not represent all of the spend, rather the most spectacular part of the job.

“I think we are quite good at prioritising in terms of what money should be spent on. It is to do with being interested in materials.

“We enjoy working on public buildings within the cultural sector especially but also in education and sport.

“In this case, it was a privilege because not many galleries would have had the foresight to envision what MAO did,” he added.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of MAO’s façade is the fact that it doesn’t have one, as Alex is quick to point out.

“You expect to have a big sheet of glass separating institutions such as galleries from the street. Perhaps there is a formal reception and then you have to go beyond that to reach the art.

“This is very direct. Literally the pavement brings you straight in and there is no sheet of glass, nothing except a roller shutter.

“We invited the artist Richard Woods to contribute to the design and customise the roller shutter, so that it is a piece of artwork in itself.

“The nice thing is you do not see it in the daytime because the gallery opens to the streetscape but at night when the shutter is closed, the artwork on it becomes part of the street,” Alex said.

“It is a little piece of New York right in the centre of Oxford.”