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Ancient and modern

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aj building study Stanton Williams' visitor centre, commissioned by English Heritage, is one of Yorkshire's best contemporary buildings, and part of a major reworking of the Whitby Abbey site

Whitby has seen some catastrophes in its time. In 867 the famous monastery, which had been established there more than two centuries earlier, a renowned centre of culture and learning and the meeting place of the Synod ofWhitby (which turned the English into Roman Catholics), was looted and razed to the ground by marauding Vikings.

Re-established by the Normans, the abbey was finally wound up by Henry VIII in 1539, with its great church and other buildings falling into abject ruin. It took the town 300 years to recover.

Besides these horrors, the arrival of Dracula might seem a minor matter but somehow nobody who writes about the town can omit a mention of Bram Stoker's rather feeble novel, published in 1897 and set partly in Whitby. Dracula fans, most of them more comic than sinister, are regular visitors - the packed churchyard, set perilously close to the cliffs, is the promised land for them.

They, and more conventional visitors, are now the foundation of the local economy, compensating for the dramatic decline of fishing and associated industries since the Second World War.

Dracula makes his appearance in the 'interactive presentations' which are, inevitably, a feature of the new visitor centre which English Heritage has recently opened close to the abbey ruins, now a much-visited tourist sight. But Whitby does not need romance conferred on it by second-rate fiction writers. The site of the place is stupendous, with abbey and parish church (itself one of the most remarkable in England) set on a windswept headland overlooking the town and harbour, nestling below. Few sites, indeed, could be more challenging for an architect than that presented to Stanton Williams, appointed to design the new visitor centre in 1998.

Visitor centres are deeply unfashionable, scorned by aesthetes for whom the golden age of the heritage (though the term was not yet used) was back in the 1950s - you paid sixpence to an elderly person crouching in a green-painted Ministry of Works hut. The same sum bought you a guidebook - no pictures, but the scholarship was sound. The rest was left to the imagination. You brought your tea in a flask.

There are still sites where similar conditions prevail - long may they survive. But in a popular location like Whitby, visitor facilities had, by the 1990s, become utterly inadequate for the numbers of people involved. Parked cars sprawled across the headland, where a utilitarian WC block defaced the view. Once inside the abbey grounds, having passed through a makeshift ticket office/shop, visitors were tightly constrained by fencing - much of the land around the ruins was in private ownership and out of bounds. You could peer over the wall from the abbey at the ruined mansion standing to the south-east, clearly a late 17th-century building but long abandoned, with its windows blocked - 'the silence of this assertive range is tremendous, ' wrote Pevsner. On closer examination, the great house turned out to be a melancholy shell, ruthlessly tidied and shored up by the Office of Works during the 1930s and used in recent years as a car park.

'An entirely new building was not inevitable, ' says Alan Stanton of Stanton Williams. 'At the beginning of the project, we looked at possible conversions of buildings around the site' - a range of barns adjoining the ruined mansion was considered. Eventually, however, attention turned to an adaptation of the house itself. It had been built by Sir Hugh Cholmley, whose family had acquired the monastic buildings after the Dissolution.

Cholmley (1632-89) was a talented, as well as a wealthy man who had worked as resident engineer in the (then) English colony of Tangier. Returning from North Africa in 1672, he recorded that 'most of the summer I spent at Whitby, in finishing my new building'. The 'new building', known as the banqueting hall, was a bold addition to what had (probably) once been the abbot's lodging and was designed in the newly fashionable Classical manner. The old quarters behind were retained, though probably downgraded as service areas. The headland at Whitby was an incongruous location for a fashionable residence. By the end of the 18th century Cholmley's house was little used.

After storm damage in 1790, it was unroofed and left as a shell. By 1828 the south wall of the house had been demolished. When the former monastic lodging was completely rebuilt in the Victorian period as a residence, Abbey House, for W C Strickland, the shell was repaired, with the windows blocked up flush to the wall and, it appears, a lightweight roof installed so that the building could be used as a shed or coach house - an undignified end for Cholmley's elegant pavilion.

By the 1930s, when the Office of Works moved in, major interventions were necessary to stabilise the ruin - reinforced concrete shoring was introduced to hold up the main facade, while further demolition work, including much of what remained of the south wall, further tidied up the remains.

'The term 'visitor centre' was not actually used at the start of the project', says Stanton.

'We conceived the building as a museum.' In fact, the completed building lacks two of the standard ingredients of recent visitor centres, a cafe and lavatories, though it does contain a shop as well as a ticketing desk.

Stanton Williams' proposal was to construct the new building as essentially a freestanding structure on two levels, roughly those of the original main floors, within the shell of the banqueting house: a steel 'cage' dropped into the ruin. For English Heritage, this was a high-profile project, overlapping Structure At the start of the project, the only remaining elements of the original building were the four perimeter walls, and much of the 1,500mm thick rear wall was reduced in height as a result of severe weathering.

The first stage of the works was to install a new piled foundation slab to carry the existing masonry together with the new elements of the superstructure. The new building elements include the roof and first floor, a small plant mezzanine and a twin lift installation, together with an access bridge from the grounds of the abbey. The first floor is a composite deck which provides a stiffening diaphragm spanning between, and connected to, the return walls at each end. There is a horizontal glazed gap between the edge of the first floor and the front wall, but stainless-steel dowels have been installed below the glazing between the floor and the masonry, to provide lateral stability to the wall. A new internal steel frame carries the upper floors and the roof, and extends to form the skeleton for the combined lift shaft which has a glazed internal elevation. The roof cantilevers approximately 4m from the internal support column to beyond the rear wall, and a large panel of curtain wall glazing is suspended from the end of the cantilever to create a very striking but simple rear elevation.

The solution adopted was developed in conjunction with the architect to meet EH's criteria of minimum disturbance to the buried archaeology and minimum loss or modification of the existing building fabric.

with the ill-fated Stonehenge visitor centre and engaging the attentions of EH's then chairman Sir Jocelyn Stevens. The decisiveness of the client was refreshing, says Stanton - a meeting on site confirmed that all parking would be concentrated in a natural declivity south of the abbey ruins, where there would be a second ticketing point as well as lavatories - around 50 per cent of visitors arrive by car, the remainder trekking up a dramatic flight of steps from the town.

Negotiations with the owner of the surrounding land, the Strickland-Constable Estate, secured public access right across the site, with the intrusive fencing removed - excavations revealed that much of this land had been an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. EH was, however, 'nervous', says Stanton, about the proposed alterations to the banqueting house. In particular, the opening up of the infilled windows was seen as a sensitive issue, given that the dramatic 'silence' which Pevsner so enjoyed could be replaced by distracting views of the shop and display areas.

There was also the issue of how to treat the overgrown courtyards north of the house, which would form a principal access route to the building - in the event, a historical reconstruction, rather than a modern reworking, was the chosen approach. Casella Stanger's scheme for these spaces includes a reconstructed dividing wall between inner and outer courts, and the repair of the cobbled surface of the inner court - found to be remarkably intact below a layer of soil.

Stanton Williams' building, though a significant work of contemporary architecture in its own right, is therefore just one element in a major rearrangement of the abbey site which has given the ruins a new dignity and cleared away unworthy intrusions - the WC block and parked cars on the headland have gone. The new visitor centre/museum had to be connected to an accessible visitor route across the whole site. At the eastern end of the banqueting house, the ground fell away sharply, with ditches and terracing marking the site of gardens and formal walks laid out in the 17th century. The blocked doorway, oddly stranded at first floor level in the east facade, was thus explained - it had presumably once been connected to a bridge or timber walkway providing access to the gardens and the ruins beyond. Stanton Williams therefore reinstated this connection.

For some visitors, the visitor centre forms the starting point for their visit.Others, entering from the car park, may explore the abbey first and then come to the centre, ending in the shop - incidentally, well stocked with books and good quality souvenirs (and not a sign of Dracula fudge). Refreshments can be had in an adapted portion of Abbey House (which has been used as a hostel for many years) or in a pleasant garden in fine weather.

Stanton Williams has a formidable reputation for bold juxtapositions of old and new, in the tradition of Italian masters such as Carlo Scarpa, Franco Albini and BBPR. 'It's been our crusade, ' says Stanton. From small works like the cathedral museum at Winchester the practice has moved on to major projects such as 60 Sloane Avenue (with YRM) and the galleries and other ongoing additions at Compton Verney. It is also renowned for its fastidious attention to detail. The Whitby project tested its abilities to the full.

The unblocking of the great majority of the banqueting house windows was fundamental to the scheme - it would, indeed, have been perverse to deny visitors spectacular views out to the headland and North Sea.

Metal gauze curtains provide an element of black-out, obscuring what goes in inside the building from the courtyard but admitting a degree of natural light. The single sheets of glass which now fill the window openings might appear straightforward to the point of banality, but it is hard to see what else could be done - nobody knows what form the original windows took and EH would not have considered a speculative reproduction of lost work. Moreover, it is now possible to see the depth of the wall - the traditional identity of the windows as holes in the wall has been reinstated.

The interior of the centre is, even by Stanton Williams' standards, exquisitely done.

With a York-based main contractor and locally based subcontractors and craftsmen, the construction team responded strongly to the challenge of a building which is, by North Riding standards, radically modern.

The new work, using timber, steel and glass, is finely made, providing a suitable contrast to the exposed brick and stone of the old house. Display cases, benches and other furnishings were designed by Stanton Williams.

The budget was not, in fact, particularly large and the sensitive archaeology of the site posed further problems. The structural agenda (devised initially by Dewhurst Macfarlane) had to compensate for the stripping out of the 1930s shores.

The banqueting house sits partly on rock, partly on made-up ground. The new steel structure, carrying a lightweight, zinc-clad roof, sits on a new concrete floor slab, with minimal piling below. At first it was hoped that the new building could stand entirely clear of the old walls, but it was necessary to tie it to the old fabric and thus stiffen the entire structure (the main facade is visibly 'bent'). The main steel columns are formed of C-shaped sections welded together - the architects wanted to achieve a sharpness of form not possible with the rounded-off form of standard sections. The detachment between old and new is visually striking - on the southern edge, the new structure is cantilevered out over the partly-demolished south elevation to provide a framework from which a new enclosing curtain of glass and cedar is hung. The marriage of old and new on this elevation, with the rich mix of stone, timber and metal, forms a classic instance of the dialogue between history and modernity.

The vital bridge link from the first floor of the centre to the ruins takes the modern interventions of the building's interior out into the abbey grounds. Perhaps the glass balustrade here looks too ethereal, even fragile, and a little mannered but the aim was to preserve views, to avoid a weighty intrusion into the historic scene.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of the visitor centre is the absence of exhibits - the abbey has never been fully excavated and recent digs have produced surprisingly little in the way of artefacts. Yet EH, which has an uneasy and shifting relationship with new architecture (and which is saddled with the scandal of Stonehenge), has commissioned one of the best new buildings in Yorkshire for decades. Whitby's last major new development was a dire supermarket, surrounded by parking, on the site of a picturesque old creek.

Stanton Williams has set a new standard for design in this part of the world and, to my taste, it has enhanced, rather than diminished, the appeal of this entrancing locale.

joinery Dalton Joinery;

glazing Odyssey Glass;

mechanical J Michael King; electrical John Wright Electrical Services; lifts Express Evans Lifts; lighting Concord Lighting;

stainless steel BDA Fabrications; louvres Aspinalls; exhibition installation Plowden & Smith; specialist plaster Perucchetti Associates;

groundworks (courts) Keith Brown;

architectural metalwork Marshall Howard;

landscaping JJ Harrison;

stone Egton Quarries;

stone mason Kevin Foster; contractor southern entrance Turner Construction

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