Sunday, 24 October 2010

Sunderland Winter Gardens

I travelled to Sunderland to visit The National Glass Centre (see my other blog) for my AT3.1 Building Study; but I also went out of my way to visit Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens (the sole study of this blog is on the winter gardens).

(picture courtesy of flickr - my picture of the same view in heavy rain wasn't as comprehensible)

I walked in knowing little about the building, so I began talking to the museum staff, who told me that the museum's original winter gardens were damaged in the war, and later demolished. The glass building above was completed as one of the national lottery-funded millennium projects, and was 'the most attended museum outside London' when completed. The picture below shows the original winter gardens in the early 1900s; very Crystal Palace- like:

Entering the Winter Gardens begins with a look up at a spiralling staircase leading up into a green canopy. The open treads and mesh under the railings help promote the gardens the staircase travels through. 

The architecture both internally and externally was very transparent, allowing views of the gardens wherever you are in the winter gardens, including outside the building. I'd imagine this is to allow the most natural sunlight into the building (to help the tropical plants grow), as I spotted no artificial lighting in this structure. Eco-credentials in a garden are particularly appropriate.

View of the (broken) lift into the canopy, which is just as transparent as the rest of the structure. 

My picture above shows the view from the top of the canopy. A cantilevered walkway lines the perimeter of the building, and it is very open (much like the staircase), allowing you to see beneath your feet and down onto the tops of the plants below. The cantilever allows a column free space under the walkways, creating an unobstructed growing area about twenty metres across. The walkway also slants away from the centre of the room, allowing more space for the growth of the larger plants, such as banana plants. 

This type of future-proof architecture interests me. I watched a programme on iPlayer featuring Richard Roger's Lloyds Building in London and how it was designed to meet the requirements of a modern office block a decade or two after its completion. This involved designing space for the miles of computer cables that would replace the old typewriters and filing cabinets in offices of the time. The building also features a huge atrium that is built in such a way that new floors could be added across it if extra floor space is required in the future. 

When I design buildings for university projects it would be useful for me consider not just the building's purpose upon the immediate completion date, but also the function maybe a few decades in the future. Flexibility is so important in architecture. I was in California a few years ago and a tour guide told me that the Disney studios in Hollywood were laid out and designed to look like a hospital, so that if Walt Disney's ambitious creations did not hit a chord with the public, the studios could be easily converted into a hospital. Plant growth, however, is much easier to predict, so the architects (Napper Architects) of the Winter Gardens didn't have to go to the lengths that Rogers or Disney did. 

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Clifton Cathedral

The cathedral church of SS. Peter and Paul (known to most people as Clifton Cathedral) by Percy Thomas is one of my favourite buildings I visited during the summer break.

On approach I was hardly blown away at the sight of the exterior of the cathedral. Its lack of windows (from this view) made me wonder if the interior would be gloomy, maybe even suppressing. If it wasn't for the three giant in-situ concrete spires on top I don't think I would have recognised it as a cathedral at all:

Once inside the building however I was welcomed by a series of bright spaces. Straight in front of me was the main alter, delicately bathed in the sunlight passing through hidden roof lights. I was told that these roof lights drew more focus to the alter, as people wouldn't be distracted by anything going on outside if the cathedral were to have had conventional windows.

To my left (on the west side of the cathedral) were a series of stained glass windows that let in the afternoon sunlight, creating glimmering patterns on the floor. The windows had all the colour of classic cathedral stained glass windows, but unusually there was no picture or religious scene to be found in the design; just a jumbled pattern constructed from a collection of broken glass. I've darkened this picture to highlight the vibrant colours:

I could see that the floor plan of the cathedral was hexagonal, but the more I explored, the more hexagons I discovered. From the organ to the floor tiles, everything seemed to be hexagonal. The guidebook states:

'All the dimensions and angles within the building are based on an equilateral triangle height 1 ft. 6 in. base to apex and this is the controlling order that runs throughout'

Above the seating area were maybe fifty wooden 4-faced pyramids. These acoustic pyramids appear to help sound bounce back down to the audience, rather than have it reverberate around the in-situ white concrete above. Each prism looked about two metres in length.

My Grandfather is a classical composer and has written music specifically to be played at the cathedral. Instead of sitting the orchestra in the same place, he made use of the cathedral's nooks and crannies by scattering different sections of the orchestra around. For instance the choir sang on the second level, to create heavenly voices from above, which I'd imagine sounded quite compelling when accompanied with the natural light pouring in from the same direction. It was really interesting talking to him about how music can be shaped by architecture.

. . .

Brunel's suspension bridge was just a short walk away from the cathedral. I found myself talking to a man who walks up and down the bridge looking out for any would-be jumpers, as the bridge is an infamous location for suicides. I later watched the BBC's 'Climbing Great Buildings' where the bridge was also featured. I hope to write another blog entry on these series of programmes.


All photographs are my own.

Reference from the guidebook, plus more architectural information about the cathedral can be found at:   (The Cathedral > General Design)