Architecture: A bold addition to a fine inheritance: The National Trust's visitor centre at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire is a modern landmark, says Giles Worsley

FEW people would associate the National Trust with modern architecture. Great country houses, half-timbered barns, thatched cottages, yes; imaginative new building, no. So what was the trust up to when it employed Edward Cullinan Architects, one of the country's most innovative architectural practices, to spend pounds 2m - far more than it has spent on any other building - on a new visitor centre at its most popular site, Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire?

The abbey is not only one of the greatest and most romantic of English Cistercian ruins. What sets it apart are the contributions that successive centuries have made to it, architectural additions all of the highest standard. Fountains Hall is one of the finest surviving small Jacobean houses; John and William Aislabie's adjoining 18th-century landscape gardens of Studley Royal are of supreme importance and beauty; and William Burges's polychromatic church is a Victorian jewel.

The abbey and its surroundings, which attract more than 300,000 visitors a year, well deserve their listing as a World Heritage Site. But this exacerbated the trust's dilemma when it was forced to consider upgrading the car-parking and visitor facilities it had inherited from the local authority in 1983, and the decisions it took have not been without controversy.

The trust could have hidden the new building in a hole in the ground, or disguised it as a barn. But it decided to be bold. Each preceding century had produced its best for the abbey, and it would have been rank cowardice for the late 20th century to create a humble building.

So the trust commissioned from Edward Cullinan what it considered to be the best of contemporary design. Cullinan, who has little time for what he calls 'this frightened century', was enthusiastic about working in such a sensitive setting. 'If Aislabie could do it, so can we,' he argued. Since his Minster Lovell conference centre in Oxfordshire was finished in 1968, he has been known for designing modern buildings that fit intelligently into the countryside. He also has a particular sympathy with the North. He went to school in Yorkshire, at Ampleforth College, and now has a house in the remote Staffordshire village of Flash. He has a natural feel for the subtleties of the countryside and its vernacular architecture.

With its great, sweeping slate roofs and dry-stone walls, the visitor centre is very much a Yorkshire building, its open quadrangle a modern monastic cloister. It is also very much a Cullinan building. The sharp angles of the slate roofs, which cut into the sky, are offset by a gently curved lead roof on the inner face. The building - which includes shop, cafe, lecture hall and exhibition space - has a steel skeleton, clad with boards of cedar above dry-stone walls that seem to grow out of the earth. Such use of dry-stone walls may be unconventional, but they are cheap and environmentally sound, should last much longer than a mortared wall, require little maintenance and look good. Inside, functional, white-painted steel piers and curved beams contrast with the peacock colours of the ceilings, inspired by the choir of Burges's church. Visitor reaction should be fascinating. The traditional materials may well lessen any automatic suspicion of the new.

This may be one of those rare modern buildings that the public takes to its heart. But to treat the centre in isolation is to misunderstand its role and Cullinan's contribution. The approaches to Fountains Abbey used to be a mess - narrow country lanes clogged with traffic, ugly, exposed car parks and inadequate facilities in a long L-shaped valley.

The solution came with the purchase of Swanley Grange, the old monastic home farm that lies on a plateau above the valley. This opened up possibilities of access from the main road to the abbey and gardens (not all of which have been exploited because of objections by a syndicate with shooting rights to surrounding woodland).

Here, Cullinan was able to contribute to the landscape, drawing on his deep love and understanding of the principles behind the 18th-century garden. On leaving the main road, the access road immediately presents carefully controlled views of the spire of William Butterfield's church, and a sudden dramatic view of the 18th-century obelisk, previously hidden, thus whetting the appetite for what lies beyond.

On the approach to the visitor centre, Cullinan again plays visual tricks. The great abbey tower, framed across the axis of the building, appears to be dramatically foreshortened, but on moving through the building, the tower disappears from sight before reappearing in dramatic close-up as the path descends to the abbey.

For some, the idea that a visitor centre can be a significant building seems contrary. But the trust has done well to challenge such head-in-the-sand attitudes. It has had the sense to build well, neither scrimping on costs nor forcing the design to seek a commercial return.

Cullinan's building should be studied with care. One only hopes that the English Heritage and National Trust competition for the Stonehenge visitor centre - for which Cullinan, among others, has been shortlisted - proves to be as successful.

The author is the architecture editor of 'Country Life'.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album