Postcard from ... Chichester

You might not think of Chichester, on England’s south coast, as a nexus of modernism, but you might just be wrong.

The city with one of Britain’s most perfectly preserved Roman streetplans, one of its loveliest, oldest cathedrals and an exquisite English quaintness that makes it a tourist favourite, has another side, a contemporary counterculture to its picturesque streetscape and chocolate box buildings.

A brand-new building – a solid chunk of cool civic culture – has brought this alternative side of the city into focus. The Novium is a major new museum displaying artefacts from the city’s 300,000-piece collection. Designed by Keith Williams Architects, it sits in a tight side street, its strikingly geometric planes making it appear like a seductive abstract sculpture carefully framing the view of the cathedral spire.

The museum is built on the remains of a Roman bath, which are exposed as the central feature in its ground floor. It makes for a visceral introduction to the city’s strata of history, as if the new had been ripped open to expose the city’s long past. A delicate beam of natural light illuminates the raw concrete wall behind the long-buried ruins in a memorable first image. The ruins are bookended by the Chilgrove mosaic, a Roman floor mounted on the wall. Moving through the museum via a long, theatrical concrete stair, the visitor reaches a glazed lobby from which they can gaze over the rooftops to the Norman cathedral. It is a terrific view, a modernist cockpit from which to survey a city.

The first floor contains at its heart a huge vitrine, a cabinet of Chichester curiosities stuffed with a quirky collection of artefacts, while another cabinet-lined gallery sits above. It is an intriguing update of a traditional museum’s glass cabinets and cases, a blend of scholarly preservation and enjoyable eccentricity.

The Novium is a strident statement of modern intent, but the modernist inclination is nothing new here, as is clear from the little library across the road from the museum. A delicate circular building dating from 1968, it exemplifies an optimistic municipal spirit that is still alive in the city, a faith in contemporary architecture to do good.

That idea is also visible in the chunky concrete of the Chichester Festival Theatre just outside the city walls. Designed by Powell & Moya (known for the rocket-shaped Skylon at the Festival of Britain) in 1962, it appears like an inverted pyramid, its waffle-coffered concrete ceiling floating above the open, democratic, lobby. It was, amazingly, the first modern thrust stage in Britain and, arguably, the UK’s first modern theatre.

Back in town is the wonderful Pallant House Gallery. This extension to a grand 1712 town house caused uproar in the city and a headache to its architect Colin St John Wilson, designer of the British Library and one of the foremost British architectural thinkers of the modern age. The building was designed to house Wilson’s collection of pop art, almost certainly the country’s best. Chichester, you might have thought, would have been grateful, but the proposal caused a howl of outrage from conservationists and locals. It is hard to believe now as the building has settled so well into its surroundings.

It gains a part of its power from the fluid internal journey that takes the visitor from historic house to modern gallery, from the genteel artefacts of the 18th century – the clocks and bureaux, oil paintings and cabinets – to the Day-Glo shock of pop. The big entrance and cubic shop windows create a resolutely public façade, in that generous municipal tradition that seems a Chichester trademark. This was Wilson’s last building – he died in 2007, a year after it was completed.

But most surprising as a repository of modernism is Chichester Cathedral itself. A programme of modern interventions was instigated by bishop George Bell and dean Walter Hussey during the 1950s. They include a vividly fire-red stained glass window by Marc Chagall (one of his last completed designs) and a striking, abstract 1966 reredos tapestry by John Piper. Among the plethora of fine works are paintings by Graham Sutherland, and a swirling tapestry by Ursula Benker-Schirmer and the prolific Hans Feibusch. The latter, a German Jewish refugee from Nazism, left his estate to the Pallant House Gallery when he died in 1998.

Together it is quite a haul of modernism, and it is only going to get better. A major renovation of Chichester Festival Theatre by architects Haworth Tompkins will shortly begin, while Pallant House’s current Peter Blake show is demonstrating how indispensable the gallery is to the British art scene. Alternatively, if you like, you could just come to look at all the quaint old buildings.

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