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Mount Stuart visitor centre by Munkenbeck + Marshall

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Although the estate is steeped in history, Munkenbeck + Marshall’s visitor centre for Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute is a building that looks to the future

Johnny Bute, Munkenbeck + Marshall’s client for the new visitor centre at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute, wears his ancestry lightly. He is a Crichton-Stuart and seventh Marquess of Bute, tracing his family roots back to the days of Macbeth - a forebear who married the daughter of Robert the Bruce began the line of Stuart kings.

Bute’s prime concern, however, is not with the past but with the future, maintaining and developing the estate and the family owned textile business (Bute Fabrics), which is a major employer on the island, and caring for Mount Stuart itself, one of the most extraordinary Gothic Revival houses in the world. Bute and his family do not live in the great house, much as they love it. ‘I like living in modern houses, ’ he says. ‘Modern architecture is my passion.’

Bute’s father John, the sixth Marquess, who died in 1993 aged only 60, was himself a defender of modern design. As chairman of the trustees of the Museum of Scotland, he fended off the Prince of Wales’ attacks on Benson & Forsyth’s proposals for the new building. He was equally a defender of the Scottish heritage and it was he who decided to open Mount Stuart to the public and to complete parts of the interior that had been left unfinished by his predecessors, an heroic task that his son has since taken up.

Mount Stuart could be described as the San Simeon of Scotland, though the third Marquess, who built it, was hardly a Randolph Hearst. Hugely wealthy - the family had acquired Cardiff, which was developed as a great port, and much of the south Wales coalfield through marriage - the third Marquess was a scholar, a pious Catholic and an obsessive builder. With his greatest project, the rebuilding of Cardiff Castle, ongoing, he began the new Mount Stuart after the old house was destroyed by fire in 1877. The new house, unfinished when the Marquess died in 1900, was designed by Robert Rowand Anderson. Its interiors, including the great Marble Hall and the enormous chapel, leave San Simeon standing in terms of quality.

Yet it was a visit to ‘Hearst Castle’, Bute recalls, that provided his father with ideas for opening Mount Stuart. A fundamental decision was to site car park and visitor facilities some way from the house and provide a transport link for those unwilling to walk the last kilometre.

Having pressed ahead with opening Mount Stuart in 1995, Bute began thinking about a purpose-built visitor centre to replace the converted workshops that initially housed the ticket office and other facilities with a small cafe and tiny shop in a service court at the house. An informal competition was held, with John Pawson, Cullum & Nightingale, Peter Clash and others invited to submit and Munkenbeck + Marshall eventually selected.

The brief was for a ticket office, shop, gallery, audio-visual facility, lavatories and a restaurant with at least 100 covers - the client envisaged a ‘serious’ restaurant where visitors could enjoy a light snack or a substantial meal.

‘Something with style, ’ says Bute. ‘The new building was about extending the experience of visiting Mount Stuart.’

The site was adjacent to the existing visitor reception area. For Alfred Munkenbeck, the design strategy was ‘obvious from the time of my first visit’. The building should follow the line of an old stone dyke at the point where open fields gave way to the formal plantations around the house. The slope in the site would prove useful in servicing the restaurant and providing disabled access on the level, while the format of the building should be that of a gateway, a point of entry from the wilderness to the cultivated domain. The reference might be reinforced by providing a ‘moat’ for the visitor to cross.

Initially, Munkenbeck envisaged facing the building in stone, but was drawn to timber not just on cost grounds but because it would provide a ‘crisper, sharper’ look. There was a danger, Munkenbeck says, that the effect of timber cladding would be ‘hokey’ - American for folksy. The completed building is anything but ‘hokey’.

Work began on site in October 2000. The visitor centre was opened on 28 June 2001, bang on schedule and in time for most of Mount Stuart’s 30,000 annual visitors this summer. Anyone familiar with Munkenbeck + Marshall’s elegant sculpture gallery at Roche Court, Wiltshire, would anticipate (and find) a building with poise, elegant form and immaculate detailing.

Beyond this, the new visitor centre manages to be entirely modern and sophisticated enough to make one Edinburgh critic pronounce the restaurant ‘the best-looking in Scotland’. At the same time, it has integrity and simplicity so that it immediately looks rooted to its setting. These are qualities that so many of the visitor centres built in recent years - for example, by the National Trust, English Heritage and equivalent bodies in Scotland and Wales - fail to achieve.

The diagram places all facilities at groundfloor level, except for the restaurant, which occupies the entire first floor. The ground floor is essentially solid, faced in slender slats of iroko wood, the upper level fully glazed, providing precisely the effect of a light pavilion on a wall, ‘almost a tree-house’, which the architects sought from the beginning.

The lightness of effect that Munkenbeck + Marshall obtained at Roche Court was helped by the use of an existing garden wall, off which the new building could be hung. At Mount Stuart, project engineer Les Postawa of Anthony Hunt & Associates worked with the architect to achieve an almost equivalent economy of means. The ground floor space has nothing of the feel of an undercroft. The determined visitor can cross the shallow canal of water, buy a ticket and march straight through from one side to the other, ignoring the attractions on offer.

The concrete slab that forms the base for the restaurant is, at 100mm, remarkably thin, reinforced by an application of steel sheeting.

The dimensions mattered, says Munkenbeck, because the aim was to give the staircase a single run, without the landing that building regulations might have required.

The restaurant is a captivating place, with views of trees and fields. The great wing of the roof, metal cladding on timber, like the wing of a Second World War bomber and extremely lightweight in construction, oversails to shade the space on those (relatively few) days when summer heat hits the island. It is supported on two slender steel Y-columns, slightly crude in finish but doing their job with elan.

On two sides, a broad timber-floored balcony provides space for extra tables in fine weather and a vantage point to take in the landscape, equally visible through the frameless glazing. This is very much a low-tech building: ventilation in the restaurant is provided, for example, via vents in the facade, with the entire space extracted by the fan system serving the kitchen.

Like Jamie Troughton’s visitor centre at Blair Castle (a RIBA award winner this year), the new visitor building at Mount Stuart is a statement about the relationship between tradition and modernity. It is a virtuoso performance by one of London’s best young practices but the role of the client was clearly crucial.

Working with his wife Serena, designer sister Sophie Crichton-Stuart and other members of his in-house team, Bute has set out a new agenda for the ‘stately home’ in the 21st century. A planting scheme by James Alexander-Sinclair complements the architecture of the new building.

Inside, fittings and signage have been designed by Munkenbeck + Marshall. The vision extends to the publications offered to visitors and to the goods in the shop, seriously covetable and a far remove from the predictable products of the Scottish tourist industry. The new gallery currently houses an exhibition of drawings by Kate Whiteford, whose remarkable 100m-long land drawing has just been unveiled on the lawns in front of Rowand Anderson’s Gothic palace.

It’s hard to imagine the third Marquess of Bute (who dressed like a monk and spent a decade translating the Roman Breviary) embracing modern design, yet his greatgreat-grandson is surely right when he sees his desire ‘to do something special and not compromise’ as being in a family tradition. He has proved that great houses and old families can still be innovative and daring patrons.


Costs based on tender sum

SUPERSTRUCTURE FRAME £44.64/m² Steel frame
UPPER FLOORS £39.83/m² Concrete deck
ROOF £127.60/m² Stressed plywood roof clad with flagged roof membrane above
STAIRCASES £12.05/m² Fire-rated timber construction with iroko lining and iroko tread
EXTERNAL WALLS £116.02/m² Iroko open-louvre cladding, stainless steel mesh, breather membrane, rigid insulation, block wall
WINDOWS £190.76/m² Structural frameless glass double-glazed units
EXTERNAL DOORS £47.79/m² Single-glazed frameless glazing with stainless steel pivots
INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £38.47/m² Skimmed block walls and stud walls
INTERNAL DOORS £23.66/m² American oak veneered solid core
INTERNAL FINISHES WALL FINISHES £34.18/m² Emulsion skimmed plaster
FLOOR FINISHES £136.31/m² Charcon paving slabs to ground floor, oiled iroko to upper floor
CEILING FINISHES £80.48/m² Spray-painted Holorib decking to ground floor, powder-coated aluminium cladding to first floor
SERVICES SANITARY APPLIANCES £17.35/m² Armitage Shanks units
SPACE HEATING/AIR TREATMENT £126.34/m² Traditional cross ventilation to lower floor, air handling unit in restaurant

Cost summary

SUPERSTRUCTURE Frame 44.64 Upper floors 39.83 2.47 Roof 127.60 Staircases 12.05 External walls 116.02 7.20 Windows 190.76 External doors 47.79 2.96 Internal walls and partitions 38.47 2.39 Internal doors 23.66 1.47 Group element total 640.82 39.75
INTERNAL FINISHES Wall finishes 34.18 2.12 Floor finishes 136.31 8.45 Ceiling finishes 80.48 4.99 Group element total 250.97 15.56
SERVICES Sanitary appliances 17.35 1.08 Disposal installations 7.95 0.49 Water installations 18.55 1.15 Space heating and air treatment 126.34 7.84 Electrical services 115.67 7.17 Builders’work in connection 4.03 0.25 Group element total 289.89 17.98
PRELIMINARIES AND INSURANCE 71.60 4.44 TOTAL 1,612.45 100.00 Cost summary excludes external works of £ 66,142.00

Costs supplied by Robert Simmons, Doig + Smith


TENDER DATE 25 August 2000
START ON SITE 9 October 2000
FORM OF CONTRACT/ PROCUREMENT NEC Engineering and Construction Contract
TOTAL COST £ 869,143.07
CLIENT Mount Stuart Trust
ARCHITECT Munkenbeck + Marshall Architects: Alfred Munkenbeck, Stuart Cameron, Tanya Carlisle
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Anthony Hunt Associates
CONTRACTOR Thomas John Stone
LANDSCAPE James AlexanderSinclair
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS glass Hurry Brothers; aluminum cladding and roof membrane Abacus Roofing and Cladding; external doors Pollards Fyrespan; kitchen equipment Catering World; paving slabs Charcon; ironmongery Laidlaw; pool lining Monarflex; pool pump/filtration Ritchie McKenzie; audio visual Audio Visual Consultants; uplighters Louis Poulsen; downlighters iGuzzini; fabrics Bute Fabrics; restaurant furniture SCP; AV room furniture Howe; joinery Thomas Johnstone; steel frame/superstructure Kirkwoods; services subcontractor Brookfields Group


Mount Stuart www.mountstuart.com

Doig + Smith www.doigandsmith.co.uk

Atelier 10 www.atelier10.com

Anthony Hunt Associates www.anthonyhuntassociates.co.uk

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