Half dug into the mountainside, the steel and granite visitor centre at the peak of Wales’s highest mountain is built to endure, writes Kester Rattenbury
The weather couldn’t have been better. Bright skies, white clouds, a warm midsummer day. Sublime mountain scenery rising up into the clouds as we, and a couple of thousand others, vanished into the thick, damp precipitation on the summit of Snowdon, the day after its new visitor centre and café, designed by Ray Hole Architects, opened to the public.
It was the perfect way to see it. Snowdon is, among other things, an astonishing example of the determined experiments of speculative tourism. At 1,085m above sea level, these are extreme site conditions – the mountain endures facing wind speeds of 120mph, temperatures of -20°C, rime frost and 5m of rain a year.
Yet since 1896, when those indomitable Victorians laid a railway to Snowdon’s summit, visitors have raced up the mountain. Some 140,000 people use the railway each year, and around 400,000 people visit the café. Walking up to the new building with project architect Garry Reynolds and property manager Pete Trumper of the Snowdonia National Park Authority, we were in a constant, sweating queue from the Pen-y-Pass car park up the Pyg Track to the ridge. Here we joined softies from the train, and toughies from the terrifying Crib Goch causeway in a veritable Oxford Street crush. Trumper estimated that there were 2,500 people on the mountain that day.
The proper way to appreciate the site atop Snowdon is by walking up to it
That’s what this project is all about. When the summit’s old café was due to be demolished – in recent years a grim, hefty block serving pints of Guinness in its own internal raincloud (think wet and perspiring walkers crammed together out of the wind) – there were vocal campaigns to return the mountain to its natural state. But this was forgetting 100 years of man’s determination to get among that natural beauty. Plus, taking all those tourists up to this wild environment and then stripping away the services designed for them seems financially and curatorially reckless.
Snowdon is at the junction of three large historical estates, and the wall just below the summit is actually the base of a shortlived timber hotel, which was tied down by steel cables but ripped to bits by the wind in its first year. The later café, just down the western slope, was built in 1935 and designed by Clough Williams-Ellis, creator of Portmeirion, the Italianate village just down the coast. Photographs reveal its ethereal simplicity, with huge windows opening over the spectacular view westwards. But this fragile forerunner wasn’t up to its environment. Clough disowned it, and Prince Charles described it as ‘the highest slum in Wales’.
The proper way to appreciate its replacement is by walking up to it (with note-taking a good excuse for a breather). Ray Hole’s new building sits on the footprint of the old café, to cause no further damage to the summit, and shares its predecessor’s simple box form, window wall and servicing accommodation half dug into the mountain. It cost £8.3 million in total (£7 million for construction and transport), for which £4 million came from European Union funding, £3 million from the Welsh Assembly, and the rest from the Snowdonia National Park Authority, Visit Wales, public donations and the Snowdon Mountain Railway. The first brief, says Trumper, was for ‘a cross between Machu Picchu and a sheepfold’ – a building as ruthless as a pyramid, with ‘absolutely nothing on the outside’.
Technically, this is a remarkable construction. Its foundations are lightweight precast containers, holding the broken-up concrete from the old café. The whole structure was tested as a mock-up at the old Corus prefinished steel factory in Deeside, prefabricated, then transported up the mountain by the train. The building is steel-framed, clad first in an aluminium shell with standing seams and then enveloped in granite. The stone was finished in-situ, with Reynolds facing the occasional task of rejecting work by brilliant stonemasons in temperatures where no one could feel their hands. It manages a ‘Very Good’ BREEAM rating – impressive under the circumstances.
None of this prepared me for how good the building is. ‘There it is,’ says Reynolds, pointing through the thick, wet Snowdon cloud at a rough outcrop. Approaching on the mountain’s main drag, alongside the train, you first join a buttress wall with accommodation hidden underneath. Climbing past it to the summit, the building below becomes comprehensible – like a huge, eroded slab of rock or a military bunker worn smooth by the weather. The roof is curved, in both plan and profile. This doesn’t look willful, but tough and instinctive. A geometrical logic is at work: the orthogonal form of the centre’s predecessor is eroded by views of the summit, like a rock by a river.
This is not metaphorical; it couldn’t be more direct. From the south-west, the corner of the building has been smoothed off so that it no longer blocks the view of the summit. From above, you can see straight past the building to the great western view. And inside, facing east, the design points the eye up towards the summit, visible through the clerestory.
The western windows lend a James Bond-like extravagance to the amazing view
There is a lot of detail. The external granite is smooth and rounded on the roof (see a working detail of the bull nose on pages 34-35), but rough-cut on the walls, in varied courses derived from the carved-in signage. Openings are sliced straight through this rough carapace. The aluminium windows are deep-set, while shutters, hidden in a tilted soffit above, close the whole building up like a box. The combined-heat-and-power (CHP) plant and rooms for overnight staff are tucked behind the wall alongside the train station. In winter, lightweight elements like safety railings and all fluids are stripped out for shut-down – a process which takes two weeks.
Inside the centre, it’s warm and cosy – and spectacular. The western windows, tilted to reduce glare and improve visibility while also reducing solar heat gain, give a James Bond-like extravagance to the amazing view. The wood-lined room is welcoming, practical and acoustically comfortable. Details such as engravings in the granite and the screen-printed words of Welsh poet Gwyn Thomas on the windows are quite sweet. Judging by my visit on that crowded first day, it’s going to work very well – if staff (and toilets) can cope with the hordes of visitors.
I can only pick tiny holes. In common with other civic buildings of its generation, the centre is a little on the fussy side. The striated stonework would be entirely OK without the smooth-cut signage blocks, which seem a nudge too far. The sagging, sail-clad ceiling reflects light well, but its mountain-rope lacing is the kind of metaphor moment that, otherwise, the building sensibly ignores.
This is a very good building: tough, generous, friendly, instinctive and interesting. It also, obscurely, acts as an interpretation of the extraordinary despoiled and enjoyed nature of the mountain itself – a bit of human heritage in its own right. I hope that the RIBA gives this project an award, and I hope it makes the assessors walk up the mountain to reach it. Otherwise they’ll never really know what they’ve arrived at.
Tender date January 2006
Start on site date September 2006
Contract duration 39 months
Gross internal floor area 700m²
Form of contract Guaranteed maximum price design and build contract
Total cost £8.3 million
Cost per m² £10,000
Client Snowdonia National Park Authority
Architect Ray Hole Architects
Project manager/quantity surveyor Jacobs Babtie
Structural engineer/M&E consultant Arup
Planning supervisor DMS Architects
Interpretation design Furneaux Stewart
Main contractor Carillion
Galvanised steelwork EvadX
Granite support systems Halfen
Annual CO2 emissions 24kg/m²
Snowdon Summit Visitor Centre, by Ray Hole Architects