HOPKINS BECAME A LITTLE TOO WILLING TO PROVE THE VERSATILITY OF THE TENT
Those who know that Robin Snell spent 10 years working for Hopkins before setting up practice on his own will detect a certain inevitability in his solution for the Water Activity Centre at Whitlingham Country Park (pages 31-44).
Having perfected the High-Tech tent, Hopkins became perhaps a little too willing to demonstrate the versatility of the form. The tented roof of the Mound Stand at Lord's Cricket Ground was a witty and appropriate take on the village green marquee. This breezy aesthetic made a comfortable transition to a range of quintessentially English institutions: Goodwood Racecourse, Hampshire County Cricket Club and even Glyndebourne, where the tented foyer mediated between the formal solidity of Hopkins' opera house and the informality of the traditional picnic in the grounds.
The tensile roof of the ticket office for Buckingham Palace perfectly expressed the building's pretensions but also its collapsibility.
But as the tents got ever more-sophisticated, they outgrew their raison d'être. At the Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre and the Saga headquarters building in Folkestone the tensile roofs were explained on the grounds that they were 'appropriate to assembly' and were, accordingly, more or less limited to communal space. But it didn't really wash. There was always a suspicion that they represented an ill-judged attempt to introduce the language of family wedding jollity into a highly corporate milieu.
If Snell's Water Activity Centre is a tribute to his Hopkins days, it is more than an unthinking application of an architectural cliché. It is a back-to-basics exercise in matching function and form. In practical terms, the tensile structure acts - as a tent. It defines a space for assembly, provides shade from the sun and offers shelter from the rain. In aesthetic terms, it signals a building which is sporty, outdoorsy and, if not actually temporary, more than a little ephemeral.