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St David's Cathedral visitor centre by Smith Roberts Associates

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How do you design a building for the heritage industry without descending into Disneyesque parody? Smith Roberts Associates’ visitor centre in St David’s, Pembrokeshire, gets the balance right

A thousand years ago pilgrims came in their hundreds to the windswept peninsula at the most western point of Wales. They came to St David’s Cathedral, a see founded by the Welsh patron saint AD 550, and a place so popular - William the Conqueror made the trip - that in 1120 Pope Calixtus II decreed that two pilgrimages to St David’s earned as much spiritual kudos as one long pilgrimage to Rome.

Today there is a different kind of pilgrim, followers of the new religion known as Heritage. They come to descend the steps, known as the Thirty-nine Articles, which run from the city’s Tower Gate to the cathedral; they continue cross the Alun bridge to the ruins of the fourteenth-century Bishop’s Palace. They arrive in cars and coaches, block the tiny streets of this medieval city - in size only a large village - and destroy the very spiritual ambience they have come so far to experience.

At least they did, but not any more. In 1993 the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority commissioned Smith Roberts Associates to design a visitor and information centre and associated carpark on the outskirts of the city. It has just opened, but what Peter Roberts and Richard Smith have achieved is much more than a building: it is an imaginative re-creation of urban fabric, an example of architecture integrating into the landscape; at the same time it siphons off tourist traffic, returning the city to pedestrians for their peaceful enjoyment.

Buildings which deal with the management of heritage are a relatively new architectural form. How do you design a building for a context of overwhelming historical significance? Some reference is essential but too much and you create a Disneyland pseudo-reality - a new building pretending to be an old one - while too selfeffacing is just dull. Smith Roberts Associates’ visitor centre gets the balance about right - the delicate glass walls which enclose the information and exhibition areas and the zinc roof which oversails it are undoubtedly modern; the massive stone wall which forms the back of the building, extending to wrap itself round a solid stone cylindrical ‘tower’, is the traditional element. But it is the way these are set in the landscape which is the key to the success of the project.

Imagine you are a day-tourist to St David’s, journeying by coach from the direction of Haverfordwest. The coach turns off where country and village meet - it’s too small for suburbs - to a vehicle park which is paved with Breedon gravel and enclosed on all sides with high Pembroke hedge-banks.

(In Pembrokeshire’s strong winds the few trees lean at crazy angles, so local field enclosures are made of rubble and earth banked up and top-planted with gorse to deter animals. ) The banks divide the car park enclosures into identifiable spaces and direct you along the main pedestrian route; it is defined by bollards of Cor-ten steel with cast iron caps, and thresholds of re-used pennant stone where footpath and roadway meet. Three weeks ago the banks - and the turfed roof of the car park attendant’s hut - were sprouting forget-me-not, cranesbill and ragged robin, like a country footpath.

The focus of the footpath route is clear - the stone tower with its conical roof guards the entrance to the city like a fort. At its approach the banks open out to a paved circular courtyard with a commemorative stone at its centre. The visitor centre encloses the courtyard on the north-western side and its rear wall, 3.8m high and built of local stone, extends beyond the building like the walls of a medieval castle keep to continue the enclosure of the circle.

The design takes its concept from the stone monument and the circular courtyard.

Peter Roberts explains; ‘The geometry and form of the building take their reference from the idea of the stone circle or holy place - the visit to St David’s, for many, being a pilgrimage. A lead plaque lies at the geometric centre of the circle; at 12 noon on St David’s day (1 March) it will be illuminated by the rays of the sun shining through a shaft drilled in an upper stone. The event is celebrated in a Welsh englyn - a pilgrim’s prayer - carved in the stone. A massive stone wall, following the curved geometry of the stones, encloses and defines the spaces of the building.’

The information centre and gallery is a simple open-plan space, with a glass entrance wall and oak-framed glass walls looking out to the stone circle. A curved zinc roof hovers over it, supported on glulam rafters which rest on the solid rear wall. The rafters extend beyond the glass walls to provide a sheltered outside space, resting on a row of tapered cast stone columns.

Timber seats are set at the bases of the columns for visitors to rest. On the entrance side the roof is extended by an extra bay to create a generous entrance canopy.

Private staff areas are arranged in a curved single-storey block which leans against the rear of the stone wall and is covered with an EriscoBauder turf roof.

The tower provides a counterpoint to the long curved form of the main building and directs visitors to its main entrance. On the ground floor the tower contains WC facilities; the large circular room on the first floor can be used for special exhibitions and meetings. It is reached from the main building by an open walkway at first floor level or by an external stone staircase at the side of the tower. The footpath route to St David’s continues past the tower and through an archway in the wall to a woodland area behind the building and on to the main street. It is the route to the main attractions, but many visitors, and certainly architects, will value the visitor centre as an attraction in its own right. Another reason to make the pilgrimage to St David’s.


Costs based on tender sum



2Ground slab reinforced cast in-situ concrete, hardcore, damp-proof membrane, reinforced concrete column bases and strip foundations


FRAME £85.78/m

2Paired glulam rafters and sw purlins; tubular steel eaves frame

UPPER FLOORS £16.75/m2Reinforced cast in-situ concrete floor to tower

ROOF £160.25/m

27mm zinc sheet with standing seams, boarding insulation to main roof; turf-covered insulated roof to staff wing; welsh slates on battens to tower


2Timber staircase on steel strings and supports with glazed balustrade, timber stair to tower


2Reinforced concrete, cast in-situ, faced with reused stone course on external face

WINDOWS £152.25/m

2 Laminated oak frames, purpose made, with doubleglazed units


2Fully glazed double doors to entrance with purposeddesigned pull/push plates. Timber boarded

INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £21.37/m2Blockwork partitions

INTERNAL DOORS £26.87/m2Boarded timber doors

INTERNAL FINISHESWALL FINISHES £27.37/m 2Plastered walls with emulsion paint, tiles to WCs

FLOOR FINISHES £33.75/m2Carpet throughout, Marmoleum in WCs


2 Plasterboard, painted with emulsion. Suspended plasterboard ceiling in WCs


FURNITURE £80.13/m

2 Reception desk and sales units designed by architect


ANITARY APPLIANCES £38.12/m2Vitreous clay WHBs andWCs

DISPOSAL INSTALLATIONS £29.25/m2Dustbin enclosure


2Piped hot and cold water service to WCs and office kitchen


2Gas condensing boiler, hot water underfloor heating pipes


2Internal and external lighting, power distribution, escape lighting

LIFT AND CONVEYOR INSTALLATIONS £40.00/m2One four-person lift serving two floors in tower

COMMUNICATION INSTALLATIONS £14.38/m2Telephone and data cabling

BUILDERS’ WORK IN CONNECTION £21.50/m2Forming holes, chases etc


2Contractors’overheads and profit, site supervision, professional fees

EXTERNAL WORKSLANDSCAPING, ANCILLARY BUILDINGS £69,450 Reused pennant paving, boulders, gravel




TOTAL COST£749,818


Smith Roberts Associates: Peter Roberts, Richard Smith


Pembrokeshire Coast National Park




Thorburn Colquhoun


The Holloway Partnership


TPT Construction


Steve Winship


glulam rafters and brackets Bristol Structural Timbers, zinc roof Rheinzink UK, turf roof Erisco-Bauder, cast stone columns Hampton Stone, lift Stannah Lifts, carpets Interface, ironmongery Allgood, tiles H & R Johnson, WC partitions Armitage Venesta

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