Market towns, grids and grain: Robert Sakula explores Hopkins Architects’ extension to the centre of Bury St Edmunds.
On the site of Bury St Edmunds’ former cattle market, Hopkins Architects has attempted that tricky proposition of extending, in a single development, the streetscape of an exemplary Suffolk market town whose elegant medieval grid has matured over centuries. The way it has been done, with reference to both modernism and a more contextual organic localism, illuminates some of the opportunities and the pitfalls in the way we go about these things today.
The cattle market project (or rather the Arc – ‘cattle market’ was held to have negative connotations) has been a long time in the cooking. Bury has wanted to extend its town centre for some time, and the declining market, on the western edge of the town centre, was a perfect spot for additional retail capacity. In the early 1990s Fitch Benoy prepared a scheme, by all accounts a conventional shopping mall, but it foundered. When Hopkins became involved ten years ago, it tried a different approach, learning from the town’s existing layout and extending its grid into a new quarter linking the town centre to its main car park (even this vast area of asphalt was not judged to be enough, however, and parking continues underground beneath a fair proportion of the new development).
Hopkins’ masterplan forms seven urban blocks. Six of them would be familiar to those who know Hopkins’ work: nicely gridded pavilions formed from ground-floor concrete tabletops for the retail, with timber-framed and gabled barn-like constructions above, housing either flats or shop storage. Their timber and lime-render facades show Hopkins’ characteristic slightly Victorian sensibility, a hint of Gothic which is rational rather than expedient, definitely more Viollet-le-Duc than Pugin.
The seventh block, the Debenhams anchor store, is altogether different and much bigger even with one of its three storeys buried underground. Inside it is simple and boxy but its exterior is fairly extraordinary, a sort of monochrome Birmingham Selfridges clad in squares of cast aluminium. I wondered at first if this was something by another architect, but it turns out that it is Hopkins’ first foray into parametricism. At one point the architect had wondered if it was a step too far and looked at alternative facade treatments, but the planners loved it and persuaded them to keep it. The locals apparently like it too, and the whole quarter’s name, Arc, derives from its geometry.
The Debenhams building forms an oddly brittle behemoth. Its bubble-like contour, which seems to suggest internal inflation, is strangely at odds with its surface of separated square panels with pin-sharp corners. Seen in glimpses, down one of the shopping streets or across the central square to one of its eyebrow entrances, it is finely honed and strangely likable, but it gets into slight difficulties round the back where the accommodating universal space required by retail gives way to a much greater specificity around such things as loading bay vehicle turning circles and security gate requirements.
Debenhams is not the only departure from the familiar; cognoscenti of the practice’s work may be surprised by the use of decorative lime pargetting, created in-situ by local craftspeople, that runs like a frieze around the upper storage floors of some of the retail pavilions. Hopkins had wanted more residential up here and the pargetting is intended to introduce some elevational liveliness in what are otherwise seriously blank facades.
The layout has some nice felicities. Because the grid offsets as it passes through the central square there are excuses to end the visual axes thus created with eye-stoppers of one kind or another, be it the curve of Debenhams or the relatively tame apsidal pavilion which should have been a restaurant but has ended up a clothes shop. There is an elegance in the città ideale vistas that result, and sometimes, with half-closed eyes, the cubes, pyramids and cylinders coalesce so it feels like being inside a Léon Krier drawing.
In the middle of everything is a theatre. It is symmetrically disposed, a simple, elegantly detailed flexible space with perfectly tuned acoustics suitable for everything from drama to disco, made possible by kit such as acoustically sealed skylights with perfect blackout, a movable floor, and seating wagons on air castors. Hopkins’ experience with theatre enables it to go way beyond the black box without compromising that model’s flexibility. The building is fronted by a huge glass foyer with lofty, light-filled and potentially delightful cafe bar at first-floor level, which apparently buzzes when there is an event on.
Hopkins made the decision to front this theatre onto the new square and surround it on two sides with retail. This could have been a tremendous coup, and its early plans had retail and cafe units spilling into the theatre foyer. Unfortunately the developer or its retail consultant thought otherwise, and shops and theatre are separated by solid walls. This leaves the theatre feeling a little forgotten. Its transparent front wall, supposed to suggest openness and welcome, only underscores the emptiness of its vast lobby when unoccupied.
In my view there is another issue with its location; the rear service entrance dominates and sterilises St Andrew’s Street. The decision followed extensive public consultation, says project partner Jim Greaves: ‘The town decided that St Andrew’s Street should remain the main bus and taxi route. The servicing of the theatre is undertaken from the street, as is the case for Woolworths, Boots and Iceland opposite.’ Another option might have been to reconfigure the scheme so that the theatre’s backside faced the car park, enabling St Andrew’s Street to be enlivened with retail frontages, but Greaves suggests that the value of that site meant that it had to be used for retail to make the scheme viable, and points to other ways in which Hopkins had wanted to address St Andrew’s Street: ‘We developed two ‘valves’ – narrowing the road to prioritise predestrian crossings – and a structure incorporating bus stops to organise the disparate architecture in the central section of the street. Sadly this was dropped due to lack of funds’.
Nevertheless, I detected a general nervousness at the scheme’s edges. At the car park, the chromatic calmness of the architecture seemingly needs to be complemented by a lovingly yet archaically-detailed red brick wall. On the southern boundary, the newly-instituted Hanchet Square doesn’t seem to know how to engage with adjacent Kings Road; contrary to the original design intent, fussy steps, planters, ramps and handrails installed by the d&b contactor and borough landscape officer busy up what a slight incline to the ground plane could have smoothly achieved.
That said, the Arc remains a confident performance by a mature practice. Hopkins has looked hard at Bury, and clearly wants its new square to offer some of the qualities of Bury’s two good public spaces, Cornhill and Chequer Square, and of its one superlative space, Angel Hill. Although Hopkins’ achievement here will be widely admired, the Arc does not have the effortless nuance and easy liveability of the responsive vernacular seen elsewhere in Bury, suggesting the limits of the kind of modernism which believes that repetition is better than variety. ‘We have developed an architectural expression that deals with the fact that the brief was for 45 retail units that were identical in every way except for a varying depth,’ says Greaves. ‘We chose to work with this repetition and vary it subtly. To make them all willfully different we felt was wrong. Our challenge was to find an appropriate architectural expression for a ‘new quarter’ through the use of open streets and squares, scale and materials. To recreate old Bury would be inappropriate.’
Hopkins’ work tries to be both universal and contextual, both modern and timeless. It is instructive that one of its early references for this project was the contrast between Edinburgh’s medieval old town and its eighteenth century New Town by Robert Adam, a connection no doubt prompted by the fact that Adam also built the fine Market Cross in Bury. This project raises questions about the appropriateness or otherwise of a modernist aesthethic of repetition and simplification as an end in itself for a major extension to a jumbled up old medieval town. Most architects do repetition because it is easier; one assumes that Hopkins does it because the architects consider it the best thing to do.
A salutary comparison is between Hopkins’ Portcullis House and the Houses of Parliament. Leaving aside the chambers and special areas of the main palace, it is clear that Pugin and Barry deliberately sought reasons for differentiating the mass of rooms they had to design so as to produce a complex picturesqueness of form. Hopkins on the other hand sought to unify a complex brief to produce a conceptually simple (and therefore, in modernist terms, elegant) building.
There are other ways to extend towns like Bury. Developers and contractors might prefer an approach that is easier to build and to let. But the pragmatic concerns of today do not outweigh the claims of the future for which we should be building.
Architect: Hopkins Architects; design team: Michael Hopkins, Jim Greaves, Tony White, Denis Tsang, Shireen Han, Laura Carrara-Cagni, Ernest Fasanya, Julie Gaulter, Inga Sievert, Carsten Kling, Thomas Fritz, Sam White, Sarah Thomson, Pravin Ghosh, David Bank, Jess Hrivnak; structural engineer: WSP; m&e engineer: AECOM (Apex), Silcock Dawson; qs: Gardiner & Theobald (Apex), Gleeds; acoustic engineer: Threshold Acoustics; lighting: Light & Design; theatre consultant: Carr & Angier; fire engineer: WSP; contractor’s architect (Arc): Veretec; contractor: Haymills Vinci (Apex fit-out), Vinci (Arc); client: St Edmundsbury Borough Council (Apex), Centros UK (Arc).
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Concrete frame: Mitchellson; timber cladding and frames to residential and retail: European Redwood; stain to external timber: Sadolin; zinc roof: Rheinzink; cast aluminium cladding: CA Group; bricks to auditorium: Charnwood Hampshire Red; Siberian larch structural timber for Apex upper foyer: Constructional Timber; precast concrete balconies and stairs for Apex: Con-Tech; boarding and balconies for Apex auditorium: American white oak; glazed facade to Apex: Solaglas; paving: Marshalls.
AT216/April 2011 p24