Kielder Water & Forest Park is a stunning place, but it’s no natural beauty. The former moorland just south of the English-Scottish border has adopted many guises over the last century – hunting grounds, colliery, water provider to the heavy industries on the Wear and Tees rivers – and is now home to England’s largest forest and northern Europe’s largest reservoir. Now, after over 15 years of its art and architecture programme’s quiet commissioning, the park has become a developing ground for a client – the Kielder Partnership – with exacting standards for the built environment.
The programme is intended to encourage artists and architects to engage with Kielder’s environment, and to attract visitors (and revenue) to the area. Its previous commissions include Softroom’s Belvedere shelter (AJ 09.11.00), artist James Turrell’s Skyspace (completed in 2002) and Charles Barclay Architects’ Kielder Observatory (AJ 17.07.08). The programme’s latest addition is a series of six shelters along the new 42km Lakeside Way, which circumnavigates Kielder Water.
To allow more than just a fraction of Kielder’s vast area to be accessed by visitors, the European Regional Development Fund and regional development agency One North East were among those who agreed to fund the paving of the entire Lakeside Way. As part of this, £400,000 was ring-fenced for the provision of ‘seating shelters’ and ‘vantage points’ at intervals along the route. Peter Sharpe, who runs the art and architecture programme, ran an expressions of interest competition, and settled on five practices, each of which was invited to spend a few days in the park and pick out a site which seized their imagination. The growing reputation of Kielder as a client has brought practices to Sharpe – a situation helped along by the success of Charles Barclay’s Kielder Observatory, despite its, in my view, cruel omission from this year’s Stirling Prize shortlist (a view shared by many AJ readers, according to their alternative shortlists posted online).
The projects shown on the following pages are the result of an engaged commissioning process, a committed client, and designers who have responded creatively to the environment and the shelters’ future users. The meticulous, high-quality craftsmanship demonstrated by the architects – made more possible, Sharpe concedes, by the small scale of the commissions – is an important factor in the overall strategy of the arts and architecture programme. ‘It sets down the idea that we have incredibly high standards for any interventions in the built environment at Kielder. Hopefully, this will bear fruit when we come to take on larger commissions in the future,’ says Sharpe.
The programme has plenty of room to grow, he adds, particularly on Kielder’s many mountain bike trails that could benefit from more shelters. But at the moment there is no money, so until then Sharpe takes pride in representing what he calls ‘a client that can push forward architecture’.