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Clifftop hideaway

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building study

Perched high on the white cliffs of Dover, van Heyningen & Haward's National Trust visitor centre is one of the first English buildings to greet foreign visitors arriving by sea. If, that is, they happen to notice it.

In the nineteenth century this area of Langdon Cliffs was terraced to make way for a prison. Erected to house the convicts who built the docks, the prison was demolished once the job was done. The terraces remain, providing a series of flat sites where a new building could be constructed without the need for costly earth-moving. In 1994 van Heyningen & Haward entered a limited competition for the visitor centre's design, locating the building discreetly on the lowest of these terraces. The site is protected from the harsh coastal climate, close to the coastal footpath, and immediately adjacent to the existing access road. Practical considerations aside, vh&h had, at a stroke, demonstrated its commitment to a building which would make a minimal visual impact on the landscape.

The Trust was impressed. Work started on an initial project to convert existing buildings on the site into warden's accommodation, but delays in funding meant that the main building had to be postponed. Help came in the form of Saga Group, the specialist in holidays, financial services and publishing for the over-50s. Having just commissioned Michael Hopkins & Partners to design its impressive corporate hq along the coast at Folkestone, Saga agreed to contribute £250,000 over five years. Additional funding for the £673,000 project was provided by the National Trust, Dover Harbour Board, Dover District Council, and Konver, a European scheme set up to support areas affected by the post-Cold War decline in the defence industry.

Described by project architect Chris Wilderspin as 'looking as though it has grown out of the existing landscape', the building is remarkably true to the competition-winning design. The one major difference is that the original 12-bay scheme has been reduced to seven bays, but there are plans to extend the building along the terrace when funding allows.

The architect has already demonstrated an ability to design buildings which are not scene-stealers, but perfectly delivered support acts. Gateway to the White Cliffs, as the Dover visitor centre is called, is in many ways a development of the visitor centre for St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury (aj 4.9.97). Commissioned by English Heritage, the Canterbury building nestles into the rebuilt precinct walls so it does not encroach on the archaeologically sensitive site. It is a modest structure, clearly deferential to the ruined Abbey. At Langdon Cliffs, the positioning of the building at the edge of the site avoids encroaching on the flower-rich downland, home to wild orchids and more than 30 species of butterfly. Despite being overlooked by Dover's magnificent castle, the real stars of the show are the landscape, and the views - both of the bustling eastern docks, and across the Straits of Dover to France.

The purpose of the Gateway to the White Cliffs is not to attract visitors so much as to serve the vast numbers of people (200,000 and rising) who visit Langdon Cliffs each year. Locals walk their dogs, tourists drive up to admire the view while waiting to board a ferry, and walkers come to join the 8km walk along the coast. Until recently all were catered for by what Wilderspin describes as 'a tiny hut selling teas, and a few plastic chairs'.

Those who feel nostalgic for such rough-and-ready facilities will be pleasantly surprised. Despite being carefully crafted, the Gateway maintains the ruggedness of a facility for the outdoors. Precast floor slabs are used inside and out. There is no formal entrance sequence. Like the hut that was there before, the building can be approached from all sides. Entrances at either end of the building have large lobbies where groups can congregate, and there is also an entrance at the front. The deep overhang of the roof provides ample sheltered outdoor space where visitors can perch on the seat-height railings and shelter from the rain. People who prefer picnics are amply catered for with a circle of low concrete stumps just outside the building, forming a fairy ring of seats ideal for coach parties and school groups.

As with all vh&h buildings, spaces are organised according to a simple diagram. Service spaces (including wcs with a separate entrance so that they can be used by walkers after hours) are lined along the back, while the cafe is at the front to take full advantage of the view. One end of the service core is enclosed by a wall of London stock bricks which forms a backdrop for an exhibition. The kitchen is screened by a low-level wall so that staff can enjoy the view while they work.

These two parts of the building are divided by a polycarbonate full-length lantern rooflight which brings diffused light into the centre of the space. Servicing is low-tech. Vents along the side of the rooflight can be opened and closed 'with a hook on the end of a pole', and the building can be further ventilated by opening louvres on the southern elevation, or simply by locking open the large sliding doors, and the warm-air deep overhang of the roof offers general protection from the weather, and protects the glazed south facade from glare. There were plans to erect a windmill on the clifftop to power the lights, but the scheme had to be abandoned as the payback period would be too long.

External and internal spaces are ordered by a grid of 200 x 200mm precast cruciform concrete columns which are set in pad footings and support a grid of low-maintenance untreated Douglas Fir beams and rafters. Columns are encased in stock bricks to just below the bearing ribs, a move which gives them more visual strength, but also means that external columns have the mass to conceal drainpipes. Thanks to the frame structure, the roof was erected early in the construction process, providing welcome shelter during the off-season construction period.

Sown with wild grasses and flowers, the roof will taken on the character of the surrounding grasslands. More than simply camouflage, the turfed roof provides thermal insulation, and is easy to maintain. It has its own irrigation and drainage system and, although it will have to be cut, this shouldn't be too much of a burden. As Wilderspin puts it: 'You can go up there with a strimmer every now and again, but it's pretty shaggy up here, and the idea is that the roof will get pretty shaggy as well.' With the upper terraces as a favourite spot for motorists to park their cars and gaze out to sea, the roof really is a fifth elevation, seen by thousands of visitors every year. Or possibly not. From above, the turf roof blends in with the landscape, the only real indication of its presence being a couple of extract turrets and a skylight - a long, low plane which echoes the horizon of the sea.

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