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Modern Art Oxford

Michael French Associates is assisting architects Block Architecture in alterations at Modern Art Oxford (formerly the Museum of Modern Art). This is a significant project, not because of its cost (200,000 for the first phase), but because of its anticipated longevity and its importance in the "public realm".

The museum is hidden away down a side street, isolated both from the colleges and the shopping centre of Oxford. The building was originally a brewery, which explains why the main floor level is raised above street level: it's at loading-dock height. As currently configured, the basement cafe is entered separately and is quite divorced from the rest of the building, while the impressive industrial clarity of the upper gallery is cluttered with fire lobbies and can only be entered from the back.

A new stair will link all three levels and the ground floor will be recast as a foyer from where all the other activities will be visible. The front facade will also be opened up, with double-height openings to encourage passers-by to wander in. Increasing accessibility is key to the new proposals, and it's not just the physical barriers that will be addressed - when the gallery reopens this October (with a Tracey Emin show) the admission charge will be abolished.

Because the project size is relatively small and is only seeking funding from the Regional Arts Lottery, there was no compulsion to go through Ojec procedures or to have a rigorous competition. This meant that gallery director Andrew Nairne (who has recently arrived at Oxford from the new Dundee Contemporary Arts centre) could move fast. He admits that the 6 million scheme which had been discussed before he arrived was a dispiriting idea, not least because it would have meant closing for a major period. He thought a "light touch" would be better and would achieve much of what was needed at a fraction of the cost.

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