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Napier Clarke wins Black Country visitor centre contest

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Napier Clarke Architects has won an open contest for a £5.2 million visitor centre and learning centre at The Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) in Dudley

The Marlow-based practice defeated an undisclosed shortlist of rival firms to land the £476,000 contract to deliver a 1,500m² visitor centre capable of hosting up to 5,000 visitors per day. The museum’s existing entrance building on Rolfe Street will meanwhile be converted into a 1,900m² learning centre.

The commission is part of the wider £21.7 million BCLM: Forging Ahead project, planned to complete in 2022, which will expand the open-air heritage museum and increase its total annual number of visitors to 500,000.

BCLM chief executive Andrew Lovett said: ‘The whole selection panel was very impressed with the highly experienced and enthusiastic team Napier Clarke Architects had brought together on their pitch; they really seemed to understand what we are trying to achieve.

‘We hope a new contemporary Visitor Centre will provide a visually fascinating juxtaposition to the historic area of the Museum’s site and create an excellent welcoming experience for our visitors.’

Napier Clarke Architects directors Steven Clarke and Amy Napier commented: ‘We are delighted to have been appointed by Black Country Living Museum to design its ‘New Visitor Welcome’ facilities.

‘It’s an important project for one of the UK’s most interesting museums, and very exciting for Napier Clarke to take forward our most significant cultural project to date.’

BCLM focuses on local social and industrial history from 1850 to 1950, and features around 50 reconstructed buildings, such as houses and shops, along with 100 heritage items including trams, trains and buses. A new area covering the period up to the 1960s will be delivered as part of the Forging Ahead project.

The 10.5ha complex, which opened in 1978, occupies the site of a former canal basin and goods yard at the heart of the Black Country conurbation, and a short distance from the ruins of Dudley Castle.

The visitor centre will include a ticketing hall, exhibition space, café, shop, offices, storage area and toilets. Natural lighting and materials reflecting the area’s industrial heritage are both encouraged.

The learning centre will meanwhile feature a large classroom for science, engineering, technology, arts and maths lessons; a history room; flexible dining hall and coffee bar for teachers.

New external signage, access routes, lighting and security facilities will also be required. Birmingham-based practice Gould Singleton Architects has already developed plans for the new visitor centre and learning centre up to RIBA Stage 2.

A total of 24 architects entered the design competition. Alongside Napier Clarke Architects – the winning team features services engineer BWB Consulting, structural engineer Donald McIntyre Design, and landscape architect Red Kite Network.

A planning application for the latest project is expected in November.

Q&A: Lisa Cowley, BCLM deputy chief executive, visitor engagement and operations

What is your vision for the new visitor centre and learning centre?

The new visitor centre will transform the museum’s visitor welcome, enabling visitors to utilise the recently created Castle Hill Tourism Hub infrastructure as an arrival point. The centre will cater for up to 5,000 visitors a day, allowing us to meet growing demand and the attendance levels projected in our business plan. It will include welcome and orientation, retail and café as well as maximising the topography of the site to provide a vista of the museum’s historic area. The building will be modern in construction - celebrating the continued innovation in this sector within the Black Country - but have minimal visual impact, blending into the landscape to allow the historical exhibits and collections to be centre stage. The current entrance building will be repurposed as a learning centre supporting 90,000 learners to engage with the museum each year, providing workshop and learning spaces as well as essential infrastructure. BCLM: Forging Ahead in its entirety is a £22 million development project, £5,260,000 (plus professional fees) of which is allocated to the visitor welcome including the new visitor centre, repurposed learning centre, new car park and pedestrian routes.

How will the new buildings relate to BCLM’s existing campus and its ongoing development?

The new Visitor Welcome will provide the transition into the expanded historic BCLM site. The historic development will take individual buildings from across the Black Country to provide the stage on which to tell the stories of individuals and communities of the region. It is vital that these historic buildings synergise together to create a coherent and recognisable landscape that provides visitors with an authentic microcosm experience of the Black Country. Buildings must not overpower the individual – they provide the key to welcome people into the historical narrative and to encourage their exploration of the Black Country, their place within it and the impact of the wider world. The new buildings, both visitor centre and historic development, cater to different aspects of the visitor experience – they must complement and be in harmony with each other, to make a truly memorable and lasting impression.

Dudley

Dudley

Source: Image by Phil Sangwell

Black Country Living Museum

What sort of architects are you hoping will apply?

The successful architect must want to create a building that functions and is appreciated by 500,000 visitors a year whilst being focused on providing a design that achieves our vision of ‘inspiring people’s discovery of the Black Country’. The opportunity is open to all architects who are sympathetic to the charitable objectives of the museum, willing to understand our audiences and provide a built solution to encourage their engagement and exploration of the Black Country and its wider context.

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects be procured?

BCLM has a masterplan to provide a built environment to tell the story of the Black Country from 1712, when Thomas Newcomen’s revolutionary steam engine first belched the black smoke of what was to become the world’s first large scale industrial landscape, to 1968 which saw the end of mining and decline of traditional manufacturing and the shoots of the third industrial revolution. The importance of design and buildings, their relations with community consciousness and identity in a time of transition are primary considerations as the development and expansion of BCLM continues over the next forty years. These design opportunities will capture more stories of more individuals and reflect the diversity and resilience of the Black Country. BCLM will seek to engage the best talent to realise its vision. For major capital projects, this will include open invitations to tender for architects from across Europe. For smaller projects, BCLM is committed to recruiting, nurturing and developing individuals in-house that will be able to understand and deliver solutions for its audiences as well as provide exemplars to the wider community of European open-air museums.

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