THE SEMI-CIRCULAR FIGURE LEADS ONE TO WONDER WHICH CAME FIRST - THE IDEA OR THE SITE?
Robin Snell established Snell Associates in 1994, having worked for more than a decade with Michael Hopkins. One strand of the practice's work is redeveloping listed buildings in historic urban settings, such as the Arnolfi ni Centre for Contemporary Arts in Bristol - which opened this month. Snell has also completed an art gallery for the Surrey Institute of Art & Design and is working on a new stadium for Fulham Football Club.
The bird has landed. Imagine Concorde touching down at Heathrow and you have some idea of the form of the new Water Activity Centre at Whitlingham Country Park, near Norwich.
With a backdrop of Carrow Road football ground, the Castle (home of the Norwich School painters) and the many church towers, more than 100ha of gravel workings have been transformed, within a stone's throw of the city centre.
The water park lies south-east of Norwich at Trowse and offers aquatic activities, including sailing and windsurfing, around two artificial waterways - the Great Broad and Little Broad. Since 1988 the flood plain of the River Yare, immortalised in the works of Arthur Ransome and John Betjeman, has generated nearly four million tonnes of gravel. As gravel-working was finished, the restored Broad was returned to an appropriate water level for use by watersports and fishing and to provide water-edge habitats.
By early 2005 the Great Broad had been completed and was ready for the next phase of development. Land Use Consultants was the masterplanner, working in conjunction with Savills, land agent to the owner, Sir Timothy Colman.
Following competitive interviews, Snell Associates was appointed by the Whitlingham Trust as architect for the country park in 2001. This was an interesting choice over more established firms. Snell's experience was unquestionable, having spent 12 years at Hopkins, his time there culminating as project architect for the Glyndebourne opera house (no small achievement), but he had not built a great deal during his first years on his own.
The masterplanning study anticipated 100,000 people a year would visit the park and the initial project was to convert an existing Norfolk long barn on the south side of the Great Broad, an impressive 1.6km stretch of water, into a visitor centre with an adjacent café/pavilion. Planning permission for this was granted in 2003 and the work is scheduled to finish by the end of this year.
Thanks to some significant funding, particularly from Sport England, this project was overtaken by the separate Water Activities Centre, 300m away, completed this summer. The client for this was now Norfolk County Council (NCC), granted a lease by the Whitlingham Trust to run water activities.
At this point there was no defined brief for the project.
As Snell puts it: 'It gradually emerged through a dialogue between NCC Youth Services, Sport England and the design team'. Snell pays particular tribute to the contributions of Ali Webb from the education department and Dave Holden, the centre manager.
Despite lacking the comfort of working within the recognisable building typology, developing the design 'made for an exciting process where nobody knew what the outcome was going to be'.
The core idea that began to emerge was a clustering of interrelated and sympathetic activities - workshops, a teaching room, changing rooms, stores and administration. Snell's inspiration was to group these around a shared all-weather community space, metaphorically and, as it turned out, more literally under (or partly under) one umbrella. Our conversation turned to the influence of Norfolk beach huts and we were also reminded of Will Alsop's changing tents at his early (1988) Sheringham swimming pool.
The decision on the siting seemed inevitable to both the client and the design team - strategically located as it is in a natural bowl at the head of the Great Broad adjacent to the River Yare, providing stunning views over the water - although the resulting semicircular figure (a familiar figure from the Hopkins stable) leads one to wonder which came first - the idea or the site?
Clearly it is a highly prominent site when viewed from the park and surrounding area, and the planners, encouragingly, were prepared to see something ambitious. It also has important links to the Little Broad and the Yare River bus set-down. Existing car parks, slipways and the visitor centre and its location ensure the boat-storage area can be consolidated and screened on the north bank of the Great Broad, masked from the river by the riverbank.
But it does seem a bit cramped as a long-term proposition.
Nevertheless, the three-dimensional form of the building responds excitingly to its location. It is designed to float above the ground and nestle within the sloping banks surrounding it - which will be planted with a variety of local grasses and wild flowers.
The semicircular form of the building certainly focuses attention on the communal space and the expanse of water beyond, which also aids supervision of the water users.
The structure is elevated 1.1m above the natural ground level, like a raised ship's deck sitting above the existing low-lying marshy ground (which is prone to flooding) with a flight of steps down to the water's edge. This makes it clear that it is not the prime intention to pull boats up here - access to the boat launch area is down a timber walkway on the north side. Cabins surround the deck and accommodate the changing rooms, storage, reception, administration, maintenance and teaching facilities.
A PTFE structural fabric canopy forms the 'bird's-wings' sail roof, which stretches out to cover the central space with a span of around 36m. Clearly there must have been a number of options open to the design team at this point. The built solution comprises a large tubular-steel truss cantilevered from the ground through the timber walkway at the entrance. This in turn supports curved tubular beams at right angles which disappear down the gaps between the cabins. Is the pay-off - the dramatic uninterrupted view up the Great Broad - worth it? I'm not convinced. It's all very heavy looking and, frankly, a column or two along the water's edge seem a reasonable trade-off for an alternative that could have felt more in scale with the lightness of the rest of the scheme.
The cabins are made from prefabricated external plywood skins covering an internal curved glulam structure.
Materials and finishes minimise long-term maintenance.
Each cabin is a self-contained and self-sufficient unit allowing flexibility of use during the busy high season and quiet winter periods, when the centre may focus more on land-based teaching activities and courses. Each cabin is about 8.4m long by 5.3m wide, and is insulated, ventilated and heated according to its particular function. The main structure consists of 360 x 90mm glulam beams at 1.2m centres braced together by two layers of 6mm sheathing plywood. This structural shell is clad in plywood sheets on battens with a waterproof membrane, which is ventilated and acts as a rainscreen covering the main stressed-skin structure.
The cladding is 'Bruynzeel BV' plywood, which is especially suited to the marine environment and is used to build boat hulls.
It is sealed with a Sikkens waterproof sealant with a maintenance period of five years. The cabins sit on glulam skids raised off the ground by galvanised steel brackets to ensure natural ventilation and a free flow of air around and through the buildings.
The structural shell construction allows the internal walls to be easily removable to suit any future user requirements. The fronts of the cabins are fully glazed to maximise the amount of natural light. Natural ventilation is achieved through glazed vents in the sides of the units. It was originally intended that the cabins would be prefabricated in halves and joined on site. In fact, the first two were built this way but, as is often the case with short-run prefabrication, in the end only the cabin frames were prefabricated.
As built, the cabins sit partly under and partly outside the fabric roof, and one does wonder how they will weather. The full complement of cabins has been built in the first phase, whereas it had been the intention to build fewer initially, which would have headed off the criticism of potential lack of expansion.
If there is a nagging worry, it is that the whole ensemble is a bit too neat and tidy. My own experience of boatyards is of large, cheap sheds with plenty of space inside for all the elements that make up waterside activity and where internal subdivision can be into different shapes and sizes. By choosing this site - with its undeniably dramatic, almost inevitable sense of homecoming and location - some sort of closed or semi-closed form was always going to be on the cards. A more straightforward location might have generated a simpler building and allowed natural expansion or adaptation without any loss of excitement. It remains to be seen how restrictive this siting decision was as the project beds down.
However, on the day I visited the whole park was buzzing and the new addition certainly has a delightful and engaging charm wholly appropriate to its setting and purpose. The water sparkled, the breeze blew and white clouds drifted through a blue Norfolk sky. Life-jacketed kids in their Oppies, Toppers and Lasers scudded across the water. Further up the Broad, groups of canoes were cutting through the spray. The whole picture almost focused on the raised vantage point of the new centre.
I came away grateful for the vision of those that founded the trust and hoping that this team would be given further opportunities to delight the eye in a manner that Cotman and Crome, of the wonderful Norwich School, would have appreciated.