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Dovecote Studio by Haworth Tompkins

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The Dovecote Studio forms part of the inter- nationally renowned music campus at Snape Maltings, founded by Benjamin Britten in abandoned industrial buildings on the Suffolk coast. Snape Maltings is a nationally important complex of Grade 2 listed industrial buildings, many of them still derelict. The plan for their regeneration included expansion of the music campus, better landscaping, provision of a new visitor centre, and construction of a musicians’ café. The Dovecote Studio completes the project with a studio for visual artists within one of the most sensitive structures on site, the ruin of a

dovecote located prominently on the edge of the marsh. Although small in scale, the Dovecote Studio adds significantly to the range of Aldeburgh Music’s activity. It builds on well-established links between Snape Maltings and visual artists (Barbara Hepworth’s “Family of Man” is one of the Maltings’ best known features). Its design complements the distinctive architecture of the Maltings in a way both sensitive and uncompromisingly modern. It solves the complex challenge of working within a fragile ruin in a way that unites material, structure, pre-fabrication and delivery to site.

Snape Maltings’ Victorian industrial buildings included a two-storey brick dovecote on the edge of the site. This became dilapidated and eventually collapsed in the 1970s, leaving a brick shell 2-3m high. Although decayed, the enigmatic quality of this ruin at the heart of the site – increasingly eroded and overgrown with plants – became well known to concert-goers and visiting musicians. Its crumbling brickwork and rusting window grilles embodied the site’s romantic dereliction, and the balance between decaying buildings and marsh landscape which first drew Benjamin Britten to Snape.

A general strategy for regeneration of the Maltings was developed through close dialogue with the client, English Heritage, and Suffolk Coastal planning officers. It concentrated on preserving existing fabric, with all its patina of age and use, and adding to it – where necessary – in a legibly contemporary architectural language that should be as uncomprising and industrial as the original buildings, and should age gracefully to unite with the existing structures.

Literal reconstruction of the dovecote would have contradicted this strategy. Instead, the new studio was conceived in a form that reflected the shape of original building, but in a material – Corten weathering steel – that was uncompromisingly modern. This form was seen as a separate structure that could be placed within the shell of the existing ruin, while leaving it untouched. Although contemporary, Corten steel weathers to a shade of rust-red almost exactly the same as the colour of Suffolk red bricks. Meanwhile, although its form echoes the shape of the old dovecote, its construction from a single material gives the new studio an enigmatic quality. The result is a building that from a distance evokes the ghost of the original structure, but, seen from close to, reveals itself as entirely new.

This conceptual approach determined both detailed design and construction process. First, the ruin was stabilised prior to the new structure being inserted. Only the minimum necessary brickwork repairs were carried out, while decaying existing windows were left alone and vegetation growing over the dovecote was protected to allow it to continue a natural process of ageing and decay. A new drainage channel was cast to falls at base level to ensure that water running down between the old and the new structures is channelled to accessible drainage points at the door thresholds.

The new studio was then developed as a monocoque structure, fully welded in a single piece, like the hull of a ship, to achieve weather tightness. The sides and roof planes were made of full size 1200 x 2400mm sheets with regular staggered welded joints, into which door and window openings were cut in locations dictated by internal layout. Each panel was prefabricated by local steelworkers, then delivered to site to be assembled in a compound next to the brick ruin. The finished Corten shell was craned into the ruin in the course of one day.

The interior walls and ceiling of the space were insulated, sealed with a high-performance vapour control layer, and lined with spruce plywood to create a timber ‘box’ within the Corten shell. Laminated plywood sheets also form the stairs, balustrade and mezzanine structure.

Internally, a large north light roof window provides even light for artists, while a small mezzanine platform with a writing desk incorporates a fully opening glazed corner window that gives long views over the marshes towards the sea. The studio is flexible enough to be used by artists in residence, by musicians as rehearsal or performance space (there is a large opening door to an adjoining courtyard), by staff for meetings or as a temporary exhibition space.

The success of the design concept depended on an exceptionally high level of craftsmanship in construction. This was achieved by Suffolk Welding, with excellent seam welds and precision manufacture of the frame. The complex operation of delivery, assembly and craneage was carried out with constant co-ordination between client and contractor. Prefabrication and minimal works to the existing structure allowed the new studio to be delivered for a cost – £155,000 – less than half the forecast of the original Quantity Surveyor.

The new studio has been received with enthusiasm by the first artists to use it. It is already providing new options for the creative work of the Aldeburgh Music campus.


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Words: Courtesy of Haworth Tompkins
Photos: Philip Vile