Studio Downie won attention with its first completed building, a Visitor Gallery for the Cass Sculpture Foundation in 1994. Since then, its projects have included the award-winning Royal Geographical Society Exhibition and Study Centre in Kensington, London and the refurbishment of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, also in London. Current schemes include an extension to Lyme Regis Museum, in Dorset and proposals for the new King's Cross development, in central London.
When you reach the entrance to the Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood on the South Downs in Sussex, you find a track leading into some woods. Established by Wilfred and Jeanette Cass in 1992 to promote current British sculpture by commissioning, displaying and selling it, the foundation makes full use of this woodland setting for its exhibitions - especially the concealment it provides.
Though some sculptures are visible from a distance, at the end of axial paths, or placed at intervals on lawns, most are quite hidden, revealed in clearings on a winding route through the trees.
Much the same could be said of Studio Downie's first building for the foundation, completed in 1994 - a steel, timber and glass pavilion that serves to greet and orient visitors. Placed in the woods to one side of the entrance track, it's distinct enough for its function but hardly obtrusive. So it's no surprise that Studio Downie's new 535m 2 building for the Casses, the Foundation Centre, makes a virtue of concealment too.
'We didn't want a building with a capital B. The plan was that, when you stood here, you wouldn't see it. The woodland is the prime thing for us, ' says Wilfred Cass. We're at a junction of tracks a few metres inside the grounds - one leading south past the 1994 pavilion, the other dropping east into a valley, where the Foundation Centre sits.
Rather than take this track directly, most visitors will wander down the lawn, looking at the diverse sculptures, and what they will see below them first is just a cedar-clad oblong box, glazed on both sides at the centre to frame the trees and ivy on the facing slope. Only from quite close is it clear that this box projects from a lower trapezoidal storey, linked to the cut chalk banks by a pair of concrete beams at either end - what Craig Downie refers to as fingers'.
The chalk is rich in ints, and Downie produces a broken nodule from his pocket to explain a concept behind the building: its white concrete and grey render are meant to echo the white skin and dark interior of the int. In fact, the render is in two shades of grey: light towards the chalk banks and dark on the south and east walls, which are partly screened by a series of vertical timber fins, placed singly and in clusters at irregular intervals. One intention, says Downie, is 'to give a certain depth to the facade and pick up shadows'.
The fins' irregular rhythm at once recalls the ondulatoires at La Tourette, orchestrated by Le Corbusier's then assistant, the composer Xenakis. Downie's source is musical too and suitably sylvan - the ute part of Debussy's Prelude à l'Après-Midi d'un Faune.
Of course, you wouldn't know that unless you were told, but what you do see immediately is how the fins rhyme with the slender tree trunks in the vicinity, like an abstraction of them.
This is particularly the case when you approach from the east side of the Foundation Centre, from where the fins seem to merge with the trees - bringing to mind the walk through the woods to the Villa Mairea in Finland, where Aalto uses timber to create similar rhymes and articulate the transition from nature to culture. As it happens, Downie has visited Villa Mairea and is 'a huge Aalto fan', but no deliberate reference was intended.
This merging of building and site will steadily increase as the new planting on the banks begins to flourish and the sedum roof on the lower storey sprouts. Already there are greenish algae stains on the concrete 'fingers', while the three rooflights on the top storey capture reflections of the trees - this melding with the landscape is well under way.
The theme of concealment continues, because only on the east side does the building finally reveal itself. Here, you discover that the cedar-clad projection is actually the top half of a 7m-high space, the extent of which can be glimpsed through the full-height glazing at its centre, and the structure too becomes clear: the big space created by what Downie calls 'a concrete table', with a ribbed ceiling and eight long 'legs'; the frame of the encompassing lower storey infilled with concrete blocks. From here too there is a satisfying play of horizontals and verticals in the overall composition: the fins and big glazed opening in balance with the long east wall and slim cedar strips above.
The brief for the Foundation Centre evolved over time and there is still some openness about the role it will play.
The main purpose, says Cass, was to create a home for the foundation's ever-expanding archive and library, and it's the library that you find beyond the glazed entrance at the southeast corner of the building. Though the trapezoidal form of the centre makes sense as a response to the existing topography, it could have resulted in some awkward internal spaces, but this hasn't happened. The most potentially problematic one, a thin wedge to the north, houses plant; the library funnels gently towards the chalk banks on the west, its lines continued by the concrete 'fingers' outside.
The library shelves are of the same dark wood as the fins, here domesticated. Dun-coloured blockwork is exposed, which Downie says he's come to appreciate since studying the Smithsons' work at the University of Bath. 'There's nothing precious about this building and we couldn't afford any gymnastics, ' he adds. A brighter note of colour comes with the yellow spine wall that runs the length of the building, linking the library to the archive at the north.
This concrete archive chamber is, says Cass, 'what the place is actually all about'. Housing sketches, final drawings, maquettes and other materials generated by the foundation's commissions, it's a treasure trove for researchers: every name in contemporary British sculpture seems to be represented along with many less well known.
But the memorable space in this new building is the big multi-purpose room at its centre. It will be used for lectures and symposiums, can be let out for fundraisers (the kitchen can cope with 100 or more guests), and may also house exhibitions, which I hope it does - it has real potential for this. With its unexpected volume, its materiality (smooth concrete counterpointing the blockwork), and generous natural light, it isn't neutral, while the full-height window looking out onto the woods, quartered by a cross, could evoke the famous student chapel at Espoo by Heikki and Kaija Siren - another building Downie saw on his architectural tour of Finland.
So the room has discernible character, unlike some much-publicised museum spaces of late. One of the sharpest comments made about New York's expanded MoMA was by Robert Campbell in Architectural Record (January 2005) who picked up on Taniguchi's promise that, given enough money, he could make the architecture vanish, to complain that in fact there was not enough architecture - that spaces were almost identical, monotonous. You could say the same thing about Tate Modern.
Downie shows here that you can provide a little more architecture without turning into Frank Gehry - and for just £760,000, which has to be a bargain. This big room at the Foundation Centre offers something other than white-walled uniformity, from which sculpture, placed carefully, could profit.
The two lower glass panels slide apart to let in birdsong, the breeze and large-scale pieces if required. 'This is day one, we've got to learn how to use it, ' says Cass.
With the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) at Bretton Park near Wakefield, the New Art Centre (NAC) at Roche Court in Wiltshire, and the Cass Sculpture Foundation, the UK has three loosely comparable organisations which have each fostered a relationship with a particular practice - the YSP with Feilden Clegg Bradley, the NAC with Munkenbeck + Marshall, and Cass with Downie.
While in their funding, sites and programmes, all three are distinct, they offer a comparable experience: a meandering walk in a designed landscape punctuated by architecture and art. Though they could be discussed in the context of, say, the Louisiana Museum near Copenhagen, and other post-war European examples in which art, architecture and landscape are integrated, they could also be seen as continuing - and rejuvenating - the great tradition of the 18th-century English landscape garden.
But whereas at Stourhead the initiated visitor would find the landscape full of references to Virgil's Aeneid, or at Stowe a political agenda - in each case a landscape dense with 'meaning' - these 21st-century versions are much more open ended. Their garden buildings are no longer a Temple of Flora or a Temple of Apollo; the sculptures are no longer Stowe's carved busts of British Worthies or Lord Cobham in Roman dress, but abstract steel assemblages by Anthony Caro, totemic figures by William Turnbull, and sleek biomorphs by Tony Cragg - works that are open to all sorts of interpretations and responses, not the 18th-century consensus.
Moreover, while the Georgian garden buildings were often eyecatchers, confident objects in the landscape, their successors today tend to be much less obtrusive - the elegant low-key link between house and orangery at Roche Court, the 'underground gallery' slotted into the Bothy Garden at the YSP, and now Studio Downie's serene, discreet insertion in these Sussex woods. Not that discreet means dull, for there is plenty to reward attention, whether the uctuating shadow patterns of the fins on the textured render, the varied colours of the cedar, the shifting geometry as you walk around the building, or the subtleties of its attunement to its landscape setting - the sense that it has arrived by stealth.
Wilfred Cass believes that his sculpture foundation has come of age and wants the new centre to give it 'international visibility'. There must be every chance that this will happen - some achievement for a building that's barely visible itself.
The sculpture estate of the Cass Foundation at Goodwood near Chichester is open daily, except Mondays, until 4 November ( www. sculpture. org.uk). Studio Downie's new Foundation Centre will be open to researchers, or interested architects, by appointment (tel: 01243 538499).
Costs refer to gross external area.
Cost analysis based on final account.
FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £168.25/m 2Mass concrete strip foundations in excavated chalk, screed blinding; Grace Servicised Prepruf 160R membrane;reinforced concrete slab with edge thickening
SUPERSTRUCTURE Frame £289.72/m 2RC concrete with flat and ribbed slabs Roof £112.15/m 2Sarna single-supply membrane on sloped rigid insulation (upper roof); Sarnavert green roof system for lower roof; profiled aluminium gutters Rooflights £17.76/m 2Vitral fixed low-e double-glazed units with argon-filled cavities External walls £133.93/m 2Low-level walls: Envirowall acrylic render system on phenolic insulation with Thermowood fins hung off steel rail. High-level walls: cedar cladding Windows £65.42/m 2Technal MC curtain walling system with electric actuators and low-e double glazed units with argonfilled cavities; Technal FXi46 opening units External doors £7.48/m 2Prima steel security doors Internal walls and partitions £31.78/m 2Lightweight Lignacite blockwork; plasterboard partitions Internal doors £15.88/m 2Solid core with Formica laminate finish INTERNAL FINISHES Wall finishes £7.48/m 2Exposed concrete; fair-faced blockwork; painted plasterboard Floor finishes £18.69/m 2Powerfloated concrete topping with reinforcing mesh; Watco paint finish Ceiling finishes £3.74/m 2Exposed concrete soffits; plasterboard lowered ceilings to WC zone
FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGS Furniture £14.95/m 2Client supply
SERVICES Sanitary appliances £11.21/m 2Ceramic appliances Services equipment £11.21/m 2Mechanical extract to WCs Disposal installations £9.35/m 2New foul drainage and septic tank; storm water drainage and rainwater system piped to soakaway Water installations £11.21/m 2Hot- and cold-water installations Space heating/air treatment £41.12/m 2Condensing oil burner; standard wall-mounted radiators set in floor trenches with grilles over; siphon duct mechanical circulation system to display space Electrical services £74.77/m 2Power and lighting installations Protective installations £16.82/m 2Latchways restraint system with constant force posts Communication installations £11.21/m 2Data, telephone services Builders' work in connection £66.07/m 2
EXTERNAL WORKS Landscaping, ancillary buildings N/A Client supply
PRELIMINARIES AND INSURANCES Preliminaries, overheads and profits £280.37/m 2 Credits Tender date 31.08.04 Start on site date 03.01.05 Contract Duration 12 months Gross external floor area 535m 2Form of contract Standard JCT 98 with Amendments 1-5 Total Cost £760,000 + VAT Architect Studio Downie Architects: Craig Downie, David Hanna Structural Engineer Jane Wernick and Associates M&E Engineer Peter Deer and Associates Main Contractor Ceecom Subcontractors and suppliers:Waterproofing Grace; concrete contractors O'Keefe Construction; Sarna roofing Elliotts Premier Roofing; rooflights Vitral; Technal glazing Solaglas; Envirowall render Sebastian Slomkowski; Timber supplier Vincent Timber; steelwork Goddard Engineering; electrics and data Derek Lane; heating Squires Plumbing; fire and security alarm CIA; lighting PR Lighting, Erco; light lowering R&L Systems; sanitaryware Armitage Shanks; steel doors Prima; fall arrest Latchways; ironmongery Dorplan; siphon duct Ductwork by Design; shelving Neil Burke Joinery