Design in Britain: Building towards the year 2000

New architectural projects are all about satisfying the needs of the community and using surroundings to good effect.
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
They're commendably resourceful in Kettlesing Bottom, a hamlet named after its lowly position in a dell amid the Yorkshire Dales, near Harrogate. In December 1920 the locals borrowed a tin hut from workers at a nearby reservoir and made a community hall out of it. Fetes, snooker and dances have been taking place there, in the heart of the Nidderdale, ever since.

The hut's corrugated skin is peeling badly now, and it is well on the way out, but locals have been diligently borrowing from local resources again to build a fine replacement, one of 550 village halls part-financed by the Millennium Commission in the UK.

Walls of locally quarried sandstone and the two-tier roof deliberately created in different slates lend the lower roofed section a typically Yorkshire "lean to" feel. Only the slate is imported, from Spain. One day the place will be a seamless part of the countryside, though now the polished slates and a unmuddied car park are just a little too pristine.

Useful, imaginative and a signature statement for the second millennium - Kettlesing's hall is, in minuscule, an object lesson for all those projects inspired by the advent of the year 2000. Though it is the Commission's eighth smallest project - with a grant of pounds 150,000 - its value to locals is incalculable. "We have no shops and our one pub is more for tourists than for us, so this place is our only focus," said one.

Achieving harmony has been a more exacting task for larger projects which mark the millennium, as the creators of Theatre by the Lake - which opened on the banks of Derwentwater at Keswick in the Lake District last month - will vouch.

An environmental fit was the defining challenge for MEBP, architects of the pounds 6.25m project, supported by the National Lottery heritage fund. The problem was the large supporting cast which wanted a say. The Lake District National Park Authority, whose strictures can be formidable, said the new building must resemble a lakeland barn. It considered "light pollution" undesirable. That meant glass (which MEBP admits it would have liked) was severely restricted.

As the Royal Fine Arts Council, National Trust and National Lottery architects all picked over the detail, MEBP was told the theatre should not be too tall either, despite the practical necessity of a 40ft flytower. But the restrictions have been turned to advantage and the theatre a study in the distinctive architecture of Lakeland: from small, narrow window holes hewn through thick, walls of Keswick render, to Burlington roof slates, hand cut to a rough, irregular finish. That flytower is contained in the building's taller central section, flanked by white wings on either side to limit the vertical impact. "We like to think the theatre's shape resembles the fells around it," said MEBP managing partner John Marsh.

While good design is no guarantee of meeting revenue targets (the goal of 34,000 visitors this winter is stiff), audience numbers and the local response have been strong.

Awkward architectural challenges are not limited to areas of outstanding beauty, either, as the Magna project at Rotherham proves. The pounds 37.2m project (pounds 16.6m from the Commission) is an attempt to recreate the force of the town's steel industry in a reclaimed steel mill. Magna's creators want the mill's two 350-metre steel bays to be transformed into something appropriate for the millennium, but must place the attraction into an area blighted by decline. Architectural fashion statements, which would alienate locals, are out.

Architect Chris Wilkinson has found a place for steel everywhere, from the uprights of the old crane supports, beneath which visitors park, to the secondary steelmaker, which will be given an unlikely use as a theatre. (Only two elements of the old mill, a scrap barn and delivery bay, have been demolished.) It is a response to location which excites Peter Davey, editor of The Architectural Review.

"It looks incredibly promising," he says. "The way it uses steel and reinterprets the old building gives it a romantic vigour. It reminds us just how awesome steelmaking was."

The attraction, which opens in 2001, dedicates galleries to each of the elements which collided to pound out steel - earth, fire, air and water. Its qualities stem from a sense of pride in essential Britishness, Mr Davy argues. "We have forgotten quite what a power British manufacturing had."

The pounds 43.7m National Botanic Gardens of Wales (pounds 21.7m of Commission money) at Middleton Hall in Llanarthne, Camarthenshire, is another of the Commission's more cherished projects. The centrepiece is Norman Foster's The Great Glasshouse, which is in the great British tradition of conservatories and is seen by some design analysts as the 21st Century's equivalent to the 19th-century Crystal Palace.

The juxtaposition of site and attraction is even more dramatic at Edinburgh's pounds 34m Our Dynamic Earth, which opened in July with pounds 15m of lottery money. Architecturally, it is this which has excited the design world. The peaky tent-like edifice of the venue, which is dedicated to the study of earth, is offset by the wonderful backdrop of the Salisbury Crags. "It is a fascinating and bold interaction," said Mr Davey.

The title lends itself to exhibits on a wildly millennial scale and for sensational experiences, it's at the Universal Studios level with its life-size pterodactyl and erupting volcano.

The attraction is blessed with an enviable location in a buoyant city, but many say the management team is its strongest asset. Chief executive Julia Fawcett's commercial acumen is not common to every millennium project, according to a senior executive on one of the commission's projects. "Local management teams on these projects need someone with experience of what makes an attraction work, if they are to hit their markets," he said.

Occasionally, though, the grand statements defy rational market analysis. Whoever would have anticipated Anthony Gormley's 65ft, pounds 800,000 Angel of the North (at Gateshead) finding such a place in Geordie hearts, for instance? It is but one piece in a colossal public art programme which has brought 12 large sculptures to the North East.

Mr Gormley's two years of away-days to Tyneside were, in part, his guard against accusations that he was parachuting in a creation devoid of context. Quite why the sculpture is so popular is unknown. Many say its lack of fixed meaning has been its attraction, though there is a strong view that the Angel stands for the 21st-century regeneration of a rusty, 19th-century industrial area.

The angel's site - a grassy knoll where a colliery bath house once stood - is part of its perfection; so too the grace of the sculpture, even though it is anchored down to withstand wind. Its sheer dimensions - the head 64ft above you and wings outspread to 175ft, almost the dimensions of a jumbo jet - offer some explanation of its appeal.

Perhaps only those who live with such art can truly explain its value, though. It is significant that the Angel joined a local religious cause after Newcastle United's place in last year's FA Cup final. When a huge replica of Alan Shearer's jersey was draped over her, Mr Gormley knew his creation had truly arrived.