John Ruskin wrote, “When we build, let us think that we build forever”. In these words he encourages us to create an architecture that goes beyond form and function; an architecture that “our descendants will thank us for”.
We entered a design competition for a new visitor centre and youth hostel within The Northumberland National Park earlier this year. The site was set at the foot of Hadrian’s Wall and is within walking distance of 3 of Europe’s best preserved Roman Forts – these monuments of solidity, weight and permanence are a testimony to the labour of Roman hands that laid stone on stone more than 2000 years ago. The remnants still have a great presence to this day and the manner in which they inhabit this ancient landscape was something that inspired us from the outset.
The existing site, surrounded by farmland is positioned in a shallow valley and located 4 miles northeast of Haltwhistle. On a clear day looking north, a prominent geological outcrop of igneous rock called the Whin Sill is surmounted by Hadrian’s Wall and dominates the landscape. The views east and south look over rolling fields towards the Stanegate – a strategic ‘stone road’ built under Agricola that connected two roman forts in the first century AD. Stone farm buildings dating from C17th and C18th pepper the National Park and although understated in their appearance, contribute strongly to the identity of this sparsely inhabited landscape.
Our initial design response was informed but not restricted by historic settlements that have inhabited this ancient landscape for thousands of years. Through the critical re-interpretation of culturally embedded forms and spatial configurations, we wanted to design a building that was placed physically, socially and culturally within the heart of the Northumbrian Landscape. From Roman fortifications to local farmsteads, the basic arrangement of a rectilinear settlement bound by protective outer walls is an architectural model that has been repeated in one form or another throughout the ages. This historic model not only offered defence and refuge in an exposed rural landscape but also created a focus for social activity.
Our design concept was based upon the narrative of a walled settlement with a central courtyard acting as a focus for social activities. The shared courtyard was envisaged as a lively and vibrant component of the new building that will physically and socially connect the youth hostel with the visitor centre. A small tower on the Northeast corner not only announces the presence of the new building on Military road but offers commanding views across the landscape towards the Whin Sill and eastward over the rolling fields. Visitors move up the tower through a landscape exhibition before arriving in the 360 degree viewing gallery at the top.
Thick, thermally massive walls made of rammed concrete create a sense of permanence reminiscent of roman settlements. Locally sourced aggregate such as Whin Sill dolerite is mixed in – physically subsuming the building into the 295 million year old landscape.
The heavy rammed concrete holds rooms lined in wood that offer soft and warm internal spaces. The more tactile components of the building like balustrades and door handles are made from ironwork – inspired by the numerous ironstone quarries that surround the site.
Although a contemporary building, we wanted it to share the same qualities as the monuments and farmsteads that surround it – so that over time, it too could become an ancient ruin of the Northumbrian landscape.