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Browsing the AJ Buildings Library: Julia King on the Downland Gridshell

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Julia King, the AJ’s Emerging Woman Architect of the Year 2014, tells us about Edward Cullinan’s ‘radically simple yet technically perfect’ Downland Gridshell

The AJ Buildings Library (TheAJBL.co.uk) is a major digital research resource containing more than 50,000 images and drawings of the UK’s best buildings. It is included as part of your Architects’ Journal subscription. Each month we ask a prominent figure in the profession to browse the AJ Buildings Library and tell us about a building in it that has inspired or significantly informed the work they do

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‘I had just started studying architecture at the Architectural Association (AA) when I went to visit the newly completed Downland Gridshell by Edward Cullinan Architects and engineers Buro Happold in Sussex. It would be the beginning of a love affair with engineering and structures that continues to this day. I remember when I walked into the building it was almost cathedral-like: an extraordinary organic weaving of curving timber lattices, combining into a series of pod-like halls - a building that unassumingly embodied collaboration, creativity, innovation and simplicity.

‘Today the building remains unique: it was the first double-layer timber gridshell in the UK and, despite its many advantages, it is still a building type that remains uncommon. The type’s history, a utilitarian one, can be traced back to the turn of the 19th century, when German engineers started making agricultural buildings from lamellar arch structures. During the First and Second World Wars, airships and bombers were constructed using timber shells. It was, however, the ultimate architect-engineer, Frei Otto, a close friend of Ted (Edmund) Happold, who brought the timber gridshell to prominence.

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‘Otto’s Mannheim Gridshell (1975) was another building I sought out as a student at the AA. The design and engineering of Mannheim attracted some of the best minds in the world, including British engineers Ian Liddell and Happold, who in that pre-computer age provided the mathematical calculations. One of the lightest structures ever made, Mannheim greatly influenced Happold. However, although advanced for the time, it was riddled with breakages among the laths, the long strips of wood that criss-cross to comprise the double curvature of the gridshell (reportedly there were over 11,000 breakages), and it wasn’t until many years later that a timber gridshell would be realised in the UK. After some experimenting at Hooke Park, the Weald and Downland Museum commissioned Edward Cullinan to design its conservation centre.

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‘The Downland Gridshell benefited from far fewer breakages thanks to the arrival and accessibility of computer technology, which optimised the structure’s geometry. Unlike at Mannheim, this gridshell is not based on a hanging chain model, where its members are purely in compression under self-weight, but rather benefited from computational form-finding techniques of dynamic relaxation. This afforded it a distinctive elegance.

‘The plan itself is simple. The lower level, a concrete structure containing the archive and exhibition space, is built into the chalk hillside. The top floor is a 48m-long open space, which acts as the visitor centre and workshop. The structure is made of a double layer of slender green oak laths, 36m long and 35 x 50mm in section, that were lowered into a three-dimensional shape with the use of gravity. I still to this date remember being told this, and thinking ‘how clever’. As an experience it radically changed the way I perceived architecture: not as a final product, but as a process.

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‘It is in the timber frame that the structure becomes sculptural. This is something the American architectural critic Nina Rappaport calls ‘deep decoration’ - where the line between engineering and architecture is blurred. The idea of ‘deep decoration’ comes from an increasing trend in design whereby the form of the structure uses mathematical algorithms, which equally optimise the structure to pattern it, or provide the aesthetic. The Downland Gridshell is a simple and clear example of this synthesis between structural system (engineering) and visual effect (architecture). Happold is often described as an engineer’s architect and an architect’s engineer.

‘The Downland Gridshell, although lacking in programmatic complexity, had a lasting impact in terms of how I perceive architecture through the lens of structure, technology and materials. The use of functional, readily available, and locally sourced materials set against the backdrop of high technology remains the fundamental building block to how I understand and practise architecture. However, more than this the Downland Gridshell is simply beautiful - 12 years since I first visited the Downland Museum it still has an impact on me.

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‘It is a building that spoke to the engineer in me when I didn’t even know I had her there. After the AA I went on to work for structural engineer Atelier One, where I learnt more about architecture than most of my course-mates, who worked in architectural practices. And as I write this I feel like I have come full circle with a building that has somehow always, even if through loose connections, played a part in my professional life. I will soon be joining the technical staff at the Architectural Association, who initially took me to see this radically simple yet technically perfect building.’

Julia King

How to use the AJ Buildings Library

1. Login to the AJ Buildings Library using your AJ online subscription details at TheAJBL.co.uk

2. Search the library by entering the name of a building, typology or material you are researching

3. Filter your results by completion date, cost, m² or location

4. Click on the search results to view project data, high resolution photographs, drawings and working details of each project

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