Mention Dagenham and the mind turns to endless images of cars rolling off the assembly line. The Ka, with its saucy little bumpers spinning out of Ford. Convoys of trucks. Exhaust fumes. Not a nature park with marshlands and butterflies, bees and trees. Yet just three miles down the road, the Millennium Centre opened yesterday to show off exhibits of flora and fauna and highlight all the local wildlife and flowers that have returned to reclaimed land around this ecologically sound little educational centre.
The plan by Dagenham and Barking Council is to introduce the locals to everything that nature - with a bit of help from the council - has restored to their gravel pits. Filled in with leftover rubble from the bombing of London, trashed with rubbish over decades, the former dump turned into country parklands in the early Nineties. Landscapers moved earth to make undulating parklands, sealed off toxic soil with membranes and then layered it with soil, sewn with wild flower grassland mixes. Now there is a great variety of wildlife in the chemical-free eight-hectare site of Eastbrookend and the adjacent anglers' favourite spot, the Chase Nature Reserve. More than 50,000 trees were planted, which means that Arctic birds put down their landing gear there.
So the council decided to build a visitor centre for an educational programme on the environment and to house their rangers, who look after the park and take nature walks. The total cost is pounds 770,000. Over 1,500 school children who visited the parks, without any shelter if it rained, or any place to work, helped to secure the grant of pounds 360,000 from the Millennium Commission. Chief executive Eric Sorenson called it "an innovative project, an excellent resource for local schools as well as complementing the new park". The centre plans to stage special exhibitions. In the diary already are a National Tree Week, Energy Conservation Week and National Wildlife Week.
Naturally, the building had to be environmentally sound with all those nature lovers about. "We designed it to touch the ground lightly," say architects Penoyre and Prasad, who won the competition. So lightly that it doesn't have any foundations. Concrete foundations disturb the landfill on reclaimed land, so the two-storeyed timber building, with its ground- floor exhibition centre, just pierces the ground with steel-bladed screw- in earth anchors. If future generations want to get rid of the building, those foundations unscrew and the building comes down in sections, leaving no trace.
A solar-powered street lamp doesn't need underground cabling either. Looking like a lectern, the tilted solar panel collects sunlight and stores it in batteries until dusk.Then it releases that energy as light. It's the first of its kind and will be monitored by Showers Solar UK, who donated the lamp to the Millennium Centre. All the electricity for the building is powered by wind turbines.
The architects wanted the building to be friendly and low-tech looking. And contextual, that buzz word for architects, which means that in this case it had to look eco-chic. More barn than boat. So they used wood for the surfaces and a corrugated metal roof to retain a barn-like appearance. Stairs housed in a funnel clad in Douglas fir caused early visitors on site to think a football stadium was going up.
The architects are particularly proud of the materials they used. Masonite beams made of off-cuts of wood glued into a strong composite are a cheaper way of building in big spans, carrying heavy weights. Like a hardboard rib with two softwood panels stiffened top and bottom, "it works the same way as a sheet of paper. If you stand paper up on its edge it's stronger than lying it flat", they say.
It's the kind of project that is dear to the Millennium Commission chairman, Chris Smith. He likes the idea of anything that gives a community a sense of civic pride, and anything to do with the environment. Add education to the list and you see why they will hold it up as an example of sustainable technology in action.
One of the frustrations of being a commissioner ready to review projects and hand out lottery money for buildings is that they couldn't solicit applications. Everyone who applied had to prove that they had public support and aimed to serve the community in some way. The themes that emerged are environmental and community-based projects.
So this Dagenham environmental visitor centre is a good example of lottery money funding. Even better, it is opening on time and in budget - one of the first 10 lottery-funded projects nationwide.
It also highlights the difficulties some of the other Millennium Commission projects are facing. Too ambitious in their proposals, they have had to match 50:50 any lottery money they are given before breaking ground. That means appealing to private sponsors and funding bodies. Some have a building designed by the famous name architect but not enough money to get it off the drawing board. Others are worrying over filling these lottery-funded buildings with interesting contents, and then maintaining them. All style, not enough content has come to dog a few of the really big players. Even Nicholas Serota had to go on a sponsorship-funding programme in the US to help raise money for the new Tate at Bankside.
In the third and final phase of Millennium Commission handouts, Eric Sorenson announced that there is some money in the pot (he refused to be drawn on how much) for the Commission to review some projects and sort them out. Undoubtedly they will look carefully at model projects like this one in Dagenham. Not least because that overworked word Millennium means little more than a deadline.
Free public open days: Saturday 29, and Sunday 30 Nov, at the Millennium Centre, The Chase, Dagenham.Reuse content