Image: The Lightbox © JP Bland

While The Lightbox is closed to the public and our staff is working remotely, we've found ourselves missing being in the building quite a bit. Director Marilyn Scott brings to you a new series of blogs dedicated to The Lightbox and its rich history.

As I am sure most people know, I have been involved with The Lightbox since 2001 – next March will see me celebrate 20 years of association with our great gallery and museum. That means, of course, that I was there long before The Lightbox building actually existed. In the depths of my memory are many interesting facts about the building, so I thought it may be time to start writing them down.

When the momentous decision was taken to house a new cultural space for Woking in a brand-new building it was the beginning of a voyage of discovery into how major architectural projects happen. We decided, very boldly, that we would launch an international competition which ultimately drew in applications from all over the world, including Australia and the US.

In all, we received 90 applications which we had to cut down to a shortlist of around six or eight. We knew that we wanted architects who would not be fixated on grand facades or enormous budgets – we didn’t want the first and we didn’t have the second. What was much more important was to find someone who understood what made places feel friendly, welcoming and part of the community.

The site was described as 'challenging' by many. It was a very dull triangular site bounded by a pretty canal on one side and a rather ugly dual carriageway on the other. It was, however, highly visible so the building needed to have a 'presence'.

After many months of deliberating and interviewing we got down to four remaining architectural practices who, we felt, had the right ideas. One such practice had a young Thomas Heatherwick as the 'junior' on their team – he who was destined to become architectural 'royalty' with his design for the 2012 Olympic torch.

Original building design for The Lightbox 

An exhibition was held in an empty shop in Wolsey Walk of the four architectural designs shortlisted, so everyone in Woking could have their say as to what kind of building they wanted – I had many interesting conversations and people commented it was the first time they had ever really thought about building design or given an opinion. Fifteen years later, we are so much more vocal in the shaping of our surroundings.

We also made a point of visiting all the shortlisted practices, and I remember joking that we would judge them on the quality of the biscuits served, but in reality one practice shone out. Marks Barfield Architects were a husband and wife duo who had, in 2001, been responsible for creating The London Eye with BA. What was of more interest was that they had designed many schools and community buildings as well, but never an art gallery. They had just the right degree of understanding of what good community space is, yet they were ambitious to do something really special and within our budget.

Julia Barfield and David Marks

We worked together to ensure that the building did all the things we wanted it to – the list was long: gallery spaces, a museum, café, shop, courtyard garden, dedicated storage for our collection, learning studio. We also had special requirements, like good disabled facilities which were not common in art galleries back in 2004.

We were also working on this project at a point when environmental considerations were just emerging in building design and we had an aspiration to be as 'green' as possible in every aspect of the building. Natural ventilation was judged to be essential and our power was to be provided by the combined heat and power supply recently installed in Woking. All our materials were to be sourced locally and the roof was to be covered with solar panels linked into the national grid. All our runoff water was to go straight back into the adjacent canal thus conserving it.

The Lightbox under construction

When we began the design process many people said to me that relationships between architect and client were often very stormy, but I can honestly say we never had a disagreement in the nearly five years that we worked together. Julia and David were superb in the way they collaborated and really got under the skin of the project.

If you are interested in the work they are doing now do look up their practice, which includes designing an award-winning new mosque in Cambridge. Sadly, David passed away in 2017, following a long illness, a great loss to the world of architecture, but Marks Barfield Architects is thriving under Julia’s skilled guidance.

For weekly updates from our Director, Marilyn Scott, browse our blog.