Haworth Tompkins’s recycling landscape (research )

This was part of my research for Dove cote studio and I got this reply of my Questions from Ho worth Tompkins .

Listening to the maltings

Architect Steve Tompkins, who has known the maltings since before the concert hall was built. discusses

Haworth Tompkins’ architectural approach to working with ‘found space’ at Snape.

Snape provokes strong loyalties amongst its many friends. An inseparable part of experiencing

music at the maltings is the unique sense of place generated by industrial architecture in

the bare, almost abstract landscape of the marshes. Although the buildings themselves are

wonderfully resilient, the defining balance of music, architecture and landscape is a delicate

and precious thing, difficult to articulate but experienced subliminally by everyone who has ever

worked or performed there, and treasured by those of us who have visited over many years. As

the architects of the new rehearsal facilities, our most important task was to understand and

protect that balance.

Embarking on that task, we were aware of the danger that yet more evident transformation might

capsize the very things that draw artists and audiences back each year, the buildings already

having undergone significant change since Britten first suggested a concert hall here. For us,

the physical essence of the maltings relies upon its robustness and austere simplicity, qualities

that would not be strengthened by skewing them either towards metropolitan chic or bucolic

prettiness. We began to imagine how we might fulfil the architectural brief with the minimum

apparent disturbance of the ether, to listen to the buildings and follow their lead.

Mapping the interior spaces as we began to sketch early ideas, we were struck by the melancholy

beauty of the abandoned kilns and granaries that were to become the new rehearsal suite.

Having explored the creative possibilities of ‘found space’ in a number of previous arts projects,

we were immediately excited by the texture and richness of the empty rooms, full of shadows

and the marks of time. All around us was the evidence of a rich, eventful past life, authentic

raw material that we felt we could harness and re-direct as part of our palette: dark umber

roof boarding baked by years of malt smoke; walls caked in chalky distemper; lath and plaster

ceilings in various states of exquisite, semi-transparent collapse; an upside down, sign-written

granary door; a tiny window at floor level; the board-marked concrete walls of the old kilns; dusty

sunlight glancing down through holes in the roof to reveal heavy machinery lashed up in the

rafters and swathes of old wiring, the casually draped paraphernalia of previous incarnations.

Outside, the plum skin bloom of a tarred iron tie plate; multi-coloured layers of old paint on a

window frame; wind-sculpted soft red brickwork in gritty lime mortar; a sagging, moss-encrusted

corrugated roof. In the wider landscape, graded terraces of beach shingle, salt-bleached timber

and beautifully rusted steel sheet: a collection of fragments and impressions that we would enlist

to ground our work specifically at Snape.

As we developed the design, issues of place, time and memory increasingly preoccupied

our conversations around these working spaces for artists. We searched for an architectural

language where time could to some extent become elastic, where different stories could be

situated in a rich, supportive medium that would be neither historically ‘correct’, self-consciously

of the moment or merely neutral, but where both artists and audiences could feel unequivocally

that ‘we are here,together,now’ – sharing the sense of common humanity that attracts many

artists to found space over well-appointed but creatively frictionless new venues. In searching

for such a permissive, supple language for existing buildings, we rejected the more usual device

of offering ‘contemporary’ architecture in sharp contrast to ‘historic’ fabric, preferring a more

nuanced approach that emphasises accretion and continuity. The directness and formal simplicity of the architecture supported Aldeburgh Music’s brief for

unpretentious but texturally rich working spaces, rooms that could subtly distil the genius loci while

remaining available for artists to engage with according to their own individual inclinations. We

aimed for architecture that first time visitors and regular collaborators alike would find creatively

provocative, engaging all of the senses by tapping into the sensual poetry of the location. We

designed the new rehearsal spaces to embrace the passage of time, to take their place in the slow,

seamless evolution of the maltings’ physical fabric and creative output over many years of use. In

this context, the material references that we found on and around the site should be understood

not as nostalgic props but as poetic anchors for the artists and audiences using the buildings.

As a young architect in the 1980s, I had the opportunity to question the concert hall’s designers

(my employers at the time, Derek Sugden and Philip Dowson at Arup Associates) about their

philosophy for the hall and the subsequent masterplan for the maltings, produced in 1971. At

Snape, they explained, the hand of the architect should not immediately be discernible, by which

they meant that they saw their creative duty as the extrapolation of the existing, organic architectural

language rather than the imposition of a more self-conscious aesthetic. Prior to Britten’s arrival,

the maltings had undergone a century of gradual change in response to pragmatic demands

without breaking the organic continuity of building and landscape, and they recognised that the

simple agglomeration of industrial fabric in the marshes was the perfect foil for live, contemporary

art, not to be blunted by an intrusive layer of architectural rhetoric. They understood instinctively

that it was the musician, rather than the designer, that needed constantly to renew the relationship

with the untrammelled essence of the place, whether through alignment, independence or dissent.

Such a confident, ego-less approach, at a time when most other ‘serious’ designers might either

have rejected outright the commission to work with ‘ordinary’ old buildings, or attempted to imprint

their authorship more firmly on the site, was an inspiring model for our own project.

The spatial organisation of the new rehearsal spaces is relatively simple. In our effort to cause

the minimum further disturbance of the site, for reasons of economy and sustainability as well

as aesthetic choice, we were fortunate both in the extent to which the existing buildings were

able to accommodate the brief and the intelligent flexibility with which Aldeburgh Music adopted

their exact space requirements to fit the buildings. To the south, an eccentrically roofed barn,

sandwiched between two bigger buildings, was re-cycled as the main gathering space, get in

and occasional public foyer. A tough cast concrete stair and mezzanine was installed, the roof

reclaimed and long windows punched through. The Jerwood Kiln Studio and smaller multi-use

rooms were incorporated within one of the old kiln buildings, albeit with significant technical and

structural ingenuity, whilst the new offices occupy a first floor granary beneath an original trussed

timber roof.

The principal element of our brief, however, could not be accommodated within exiting fabric and

so the least architecturally valuable granary, dating mainly from the 1950s, was demolished and

replaced by the only major external addition, the Britten Studio. This was the building originally

identified in Arup’s 1971 masterplan to be converted as a new rehearsal room, but the evolving

brief demanded a much bigger room with extremely good acoustic isolation form surrounding

buildings. Furthermore, since the new studio will now be frequently used for rehearsing orchestral

performances in the main concert hall, it was important to achieve a similar acoustic personality

within the smaller volume. The roof is therefore similar in section, with retractable absorbent

banners to adjust the reverberation time between rehearsal and occasional performance or for

voice. The roof, seven times heavier than the concert hall’s to achieve recording standard sound

insulation, is constructed of mild steel trusses supporting sprayed concrete on timber joists. The

fully exposed technical infrastructure, with heavy lighting bars and cable trays, completes the

busily straightforward, industrial texture of relatively spindly structure and big machinery that we

encountered everywhere at the maltings. The upper section of the walls is composed of timber

bass absorbency panels, fixed with timber wedges for visual texture and acoustic rigidity. The lower

walls of the studio needed to be acoustically hard but uneven at both macro and micro scale to

dissipate sound reflections as evenly as possible. Aldeburgh beach was the inspiration for the

graduated shingle texture of these cast concrete surfaces, decreasing in scale with height and

undulating on plan. Large windows with retractable drapes and timber shutters allow daylight

into the room and views into the courtyard to the west and out over the marsh to the east, where

Aldeburgh church tower can be seen on the horizon.

New materials and finishes, set alongside found surfaces or re-cycled elements, have been

chosen to mellow over time rather than attempt to maintain a state of frozen perfection. Hence,

for example, ceilings made from local green chestnut lath that will naturally darken and twist,

unfinished timber acoustic panels that retain the chalky patina of the fire protection process,

‘black’ steel roof trusses that have been allowed to rust during construction, or exposed services

that make their own, unself-conscious way around the un-adorned surfaces of the interiors. All

these choices are designed to reinforce the maltings’ astringent sense of place and to differentiate

the more provisional ‘back of house’ rehearsal suite from the appropriately more polished aesthetic

of the public areas around the concert hall. The occasional public use of the new spaces is

designed to convey the sense of an invitation from artists to enter their own working territory, to

engage with the artistic process as privileged guests.

Externally, the Britten Studio takes its place in the assembly of the maltings’ brick-lined thoroughfares

and dramatic roofscapes, properly deferring to the concert hall but predominating over the

remaining buildings of the music campus. The small Dovecot Studio incorporates the ruined brick

shell of an older dovecot as the container for a stark, self-weathering steel enclosure, a hybrid of

architecture and sculpture at the symbolic threshold of the marsh. Elsewhere, a familiar palate of

reclaimed Suffolk red brickwork in lime mortar, black bitumen paint, untreated timber, corrugated

agricultural roofing sheet, natural slate and man-made tiles makes no attempt to differentiate the

new architecture as other than part of an ensemble of simple, austere buildings. Along with our

parallel work to convert adjacent, redundant maltings buildings to residential accommodation with

the minimum visual disturbance, the new rehearsal suite is designed to protect the innocence of

the maltings, which in the coming years will grow gracefully back into the landscape from which

it was born.

Copyright Jun 2009 Steve Tompkins

Snape Maltings_STEssay

 

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