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Blonde and brazen: dRMM's Festival House

dRMM has brought its expertise with cross-laminated timber construction to bear on a highly unusual project: a combined registry office and tourist information centre on Blackpool’s Golden Mile. Felix Mara reports from Festival House

It requires ingenuity to adapt a nascent technology to new architectural purposes and explore its expressive potential while working within its discipline. Architects have made good use of prefabricated cross-laminated timber (CLT) construction in education, commercial and residential projects, to the extent that it is now accepted as mainstream.

But on Blackpool’s Golden Mile, dRMM’s architects, who regard themselves as pioneers of this technology, have opened a new chapter by applying it to an unusual building type: a venue for civil marriages and partnerships. Festival House, nicknamed the Tower of Love, comprises registry offices, ceremonial rooms, a restaurant and a tourist information office, and welcomed its first brides and grooms in January.

A CLT frame, used for walls, floors and roof, may not have been an obvious choice for other architects who might have picked up this brief. Nevertheless, the specified bespoke Metsä Wood Leno slow-grown spruce solid cross-laminated boards offered a number of benefits, including fast construction, high strength-to-weight ratios, good thermal insulation, simple connections, CO2 retention, waste reduction and predictable dimensional stability achieved by durable bonding, which helps to achieve high standards of airtightness.

They could also be used to form large cantilevers, which are difficult in timber construction. Available in sizes of up to 20 x 4.80m and, through the use of sacrificial layers beyond the standard build-up of three, able to achieve high fire and acoustic ratings, the panels help to regulate internal temperature, moisture levels, reflectance and ambiance.

Exposed spruce worked well in the intimate spaces used for ceremonies, such as the Sea View room, the register office and the Tower View room, where the floor-to-ceiling window frames a view of Blackpool Tower. Competing with 15 other approved venues, including Blackpool Tower Ballroom, the Winter Gardens and the town football club, in what the council claims is ‘Britain’s most popular holiday resort’, the project needed more sparkle, especially if it was to match up to its brazen, pulsating ‘Vegas-by-the-sea’ context.

This has been achieved by the venue’s bold form, organised around a linear axis parallel to the Golden Mile, where it sits like a beached tanker with a three-storey tower at its aft, cantilevered and twisted on plan to level its sights at Blackpool Tower. An edge-cantilevered plane caps its hull, like a warped aircraft carrier deck. The tower tapers like a steep inverted pyramid and its surface peels away at its north-east corner, following the geometry of the staircase it encloses, which has cantilevered timber treads. Like the tower’s many cantilevers, this would be difficult to achieve in traditional timber construction.

Typical CLT panel sizes were 3 x 12m, with 3.7 x 9m special units and thicknesses varied from 61 to 306mm.

But it’s the external cladding of the CLT panels that really gives the venue its pizazz. The tower shimmers with a diamantine coating of gold, patterned stainless steel shingles. Seamed variants of this cladding cover the roof and soffit, while the ground floor is identified by bespoke concrete blockwork laced with recycled, phosphorescent glass, its alternate courses recessed to create a rusticated effect where it meets the ground. These finishes were also chosen for their compatibility with Blackpool’s
abrasive marine environment.

You might say that only the interiors succeed in expressing their construction, whereas the exterior conceals it, although the rib-cage of portals with tapered cantilevered horizontals that encloses the ground-floor restaurant is clearly articulated without, as well as within. It is true that Metsä Wood, which was responsible for project management, production and erection of the main timber structure, also supplied and erected nine tonnes of steelwork, but a degree of artifice in this rigorously executed project is more than welcome in Blackpool.

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