Farnborough Society Visit
The Farnborough Society has organised many visits to heighten awareness of the built and natural environment in the local area. Here, for the first time, was an event specifically created to raise awareness of modern architecture in the area. The mission of the Farnborough Society is described as "preserving the past, shaping the future". How can you shape the future without inspiration?
It was in search of inspiration, therefore, that, on Friday 15th July 2011, we went to Frensham Heights Performing Arts Centre designed by Architects Burrell Foley Fischer. It occupies a site within the school grounds with tremendous views of the countryside south of Farnham. The architectural language adopted seems to be inspired by the vernacular architecture of the English countryside; a large gable with timber cladding. We were very kindly shown round by the facilities manager, Sean Conner.
Inside there seemed to be a different series of precedents. The lobby areas were lined with glass from floor to ceiling. One of our party, Diane, suggested that this could serve as a model for the Farnborough Society’s much discussed aspiration for an arts centre regenerating the centre of the town. Indeed, this part of the building suggested things like cafes which spill out onto the street and naturally lit exhibition spaces. A multi-use community building for Farnborough could also learn from Discovery Centres, the new approach Hampshire has taken to the design of libraries.
The theatre itself had an interior which was quite awe-inspiring. The “wow-factor” derived not from its scale, which is actually quite small, but from the sheer quality of the space, its design and construction. Its model seemed to be Elizabethan theatre, with its stacked galleries and intimate relationship between performers and audience. The small studio space of the Cottesloe Theatre in London’s National Theatre also came to mind. Along with excellent acoustics, one of the most impressive aspects of this building was the quality of construction of the auditorium. The building seemed to be constructed of timber frame and roof structure with load-bearing block-work; a series of beautifully realized timber galleries surrounded the stage. The finishing touch was a lighting system which evoked something of the magic of theatre.
The second of the day’s visits was the office building on 25 Templer Avenue. Thanks to John Hollis for giving us permission to visit the inside of this building. This is the lozenge shaped building on the IQ Business Park, built on former RAE land. Only a few hundred yards from the iconic “Airship Square”, it is exciting to have a building by an architect as prestigious as Norman Foster & Partners in Farnborough. Many architects are associated with a particular material, be it timber or brick. In Norman Foster’s case, it is definitely glass. The whole aesthetic of his buildings revolves around of lightness, transparency and reflection. In addition, it has some striking spatial qualities. A large atrium space is located in the centre of the building, filled by a striking staircase and lift towers with bridges crossing the centre of the atrium. As we walked around, the most astonishing thing was the attention to detail and quality of natural light. Brian remarked that a future Farnborough Society event may be held in one of the empty office suites. Sadly the building seemed to be only half occupied, with an Italian helicopter company taking up half the space.
The last visit of this occasion was Fleet Velmead Infants' School by Architects Michael Hopkins. Special thanks here to the head-mistress, Sue Garner, who was happy to admit visitors at very short notice. This is a building which was constructed in the 1980’s under the patronage of Hampshire County Council. At that time, Hampshire’s local authority acquired a reputation for outstanding school design, carried out by its own in-house architects department. They were also prepared to farm out projects to independent architectural practices. Michael Hopkins was presumably chosen for this projects because he had acquired a reputation for sensitive modern buildings, constructed of modern materials which managed to avoid the alienating qualities of some modern architecture. Most importantly, he had demonstrated an understanding of the spatial requirements for many different types of project. Here Michael Hopkins has managed to rise to the occasion handsomely.
The school is constructed as a long, linear form with a dual pitch roof. From the outside it seems a pleasant enough modern building, constructed with a palette of materials such as glass, aluminium and metal cladding. It is only when you go inside you realize what a delightful and inventive building this is. The roof structure is expressed with columns, rafters and cross-bracing members all visible. This structure rises over the central circulation route allowing the building to be top-lit. However, the most remarkable aspect of this building takes place at ground level; the entire building is arranged as an open-plan layout mixed with quiet areas. This means that the space of the classrooms simply flow into the space of the corridor, there is no dividing wall; a library is created by low-level screens and furniture appropriately dimensioned for children. All this allows for innovative teaching, I would imagine, and, rather predictably, problems with background noise. The teaching staff we spoke to seemed enthusiastic about the building but also felt it had many faults. As well as noise problems, the rain water down pipes, which descend within the internal space of the school, were held to be inadequately dimensioned, leading to rainwater penetration. Michael Hopkins Architects were the practice appointed to design the new Glyndebourne Opera House and some of this expertise has clearly been transferred to this building. Outside the main body of the building was a music room. It is a small building, ovaloid in plan and has virtually perfect acoustics (it was also visually, pretty ugly but never mind). The last noteworthy architectural feature seemed to be the fabric screens, kept in tension with metal poles. These provided a rain-protected entrance area at the main entrance on the North and a sun-screen barrier on the South FaÃ§ade.
Inevitably, the visit raised the whole issue of school design.