Riding on sculpted form: FeildenFowles at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The young FeildenFowles office have brought a new architectural generation’s outlook to their first cultural building, The Weston gateway visitor centre at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. In doing so they’ve re-animated the conversation between architecture, sculpture and the land.

This and all other Weston photo’s Peter Cook (except where indicated)

Known as a northern cultural powerhouse success story, Britain’s oldest sculpture parkland, the 42 year old Yorkshire Sculpture Park, owes its existence to two of Britain’s most formidable twentieth century’s sculptors; Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, both local children born round the turn of the 20th century. Moore, born in neighbouring Castleford, and Hepworth in the nearest larger city, Wakefield, have become the bedrock upon which energetic cultural regeneration efforts have since built, the YSP at its heart. Since opening in 1977 in Bretton Hall Park, in tandem with the early incubatory and dynamic years of Land art, the YSP’s popularity with the public has grown; the recorded 400, 000 visitors of 2014  edging closer to 500, 000 this year. Joining and expanding YSP’s appeal have been the 2011 David Chipperfield designed Hepworth Museum, and the more recently restored Leeds Art Gallery. Later this summer, the first Yorkshire Sculpture International Festival will be launched, the next step in drawing together the three venues.

Many visitors arrive each year to walk, stroll and otherwise enjoy its rolling landscaped terrain, bringing logistical challenges for the sculpture park, and the pastoral scene is deceptive too; it can be easy to forget that the town and village communities close by are among the country’s most deprived. Be that as it may, if YSP is arguably the public face of sculpture in Britain, visitors can also experience two strikingly contrasting eras in English architecture amidst lakeside scenery, follies and a chapel within the park’s 500 acres: the stately 18th century Bretton Hall, and a clutch of contemporary buildings by FCB Studios Tony Fretton and Adam Khan. The proximity of modern sculpture to a small group of sensitive and careful architectural interventions in an already sculpted landscape, inevitably invites questions regarding the relationship between built and sculptural form, and to the setting of landscape and nature. This spring, the YSP’s first new building in thirteen years has opened, bringing just these sorts of questions back into the limelight.

Art, Culture and an afternoon at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

 

YSP’s need to manage increasing visitor numbers, provides the rationale for the new £3.6 million visitor gateway and second entry point, entitled The Weston. These complement  the main entrance and visitor centre, while simultaneously opening up a sizeable 50 acres of little used ‘edge’ land at the park’s eastern perimeter, usefully close to a passing road immediately the other side of its dry-stone walled boundary. It has also given its architects, the young-ish FeildenFowles the kind of opportunity young studios dream of, designing a high-profile and well budgeted new build cultural project.

Art Shed – Tony Fretton’s YSP building inside and out
Photo left James Woodward, right Jonty Wilde

Consisting of four main areas: gallery, restaurant, entrance foyer and bookshop, and kitchens - the core role for the building is to incorporate new life into what was once a deer park. Replacing utilitarian sheds, visitors enter the foyer entrance, through the building’s sunken, low lying east facing frontage. The Weston’s siting is also within spitting distance of the M1 motorway, (a constant acoustic), and from the car park side, visual presence. Rocks and boulders hint at its one-time historic quarry role; but until you are upon it, the sense of crossing a threshold - symbolised by the external wall, is downplayed.  Cross the boundary line and once inside, the gallery sits to the right, dug into the rising hill bank. To the left, a larger, longer restaurant space comprises much of the remainder of the building. This is a moment of drama, or in Fergus Feilden’s semi-technical turn of phrase, ‘the reveal’: a long, soft arc of glazing, punctuated with a simple, timber frame system offering  a sheltered panorama of the park’s folding hills.

An easy landscape for the romantically inclined, the softly bucolic land laced with wooded knoll’s and stretching away across the lake filled valley, makes it quickly evident that both Feilden, and his founder partner, Ed Fowles, became absorbed by the shared and separate terrain’s architecture and sculpture in an environment as loaded and thought provoking as the YSP. Prior to the jury’s decision - Fielden recalls during the press launch, that “whoever won the competition”, needed “to create a building that wasn’t built to compete, but to work with and serve the landscape and the people using the park."

Photo right - Oliver Lowenstein

That at least was a first starting point after the jury voted for their design. But there’s also a younger generation’s fascination with the Earth and Land art tradition that comes being born too late for first-hand experience. There’s more than a touch of, in not reverence, unalloyed admiration, to their citing particular American elders and their works; Michael Heizer’s massive Nevada desert Double Negative earthwork, and Robert Smithson’s smaller Partially Buried Woodshed, as especially influential, after the pair helped with the exhibition design of Other Primary Structures in New York.  Each architect speaks of just how ‘present’ the questions surrounding the architectural expression of these artists sculptural relationships with the land that have been present during the project’s four-year gestation. To arrive at answers, they were also helped, it seems, from repeated retreats to stare up at the sky and stars from one of the Sculpture Park’s permanent works, James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Sky-Space. The leaning towards American Earth art rather than the  European; specifically, the British Land art tradition - on which they have remained silent, despite the early history of connection between YSP and Land arts. They aren’t alone, sharing this attraction to the epic scale of the American’s earth works - compared to the relatively modest, indeed, small scale and romantic sensibility of Land art in the British Isles, with the academic, theorising end of the international art world’s engagement in the new world’s era of earth works. 

Michael Heizer Double Negative – Photo Arcy Douglass

Fowles, in a subsequent email, noted how, “the American Earth art movement perhaps offered more geological, powerfully tangible, forceful examples of manipulating the earth that we were more drawn to.” In response to the point about the absence of any indigenous Land Art references, Fowles continues by acknowledging a general influence because of the proximity to Andy Goldsworthy and David Nash YSP pieces, while working at the Sculpture Park, and since.  “We drew from… their interest in the materials themselves; growth, patina.”

Yet, if one looks for an abiding and constant sensibility in the young practice, contemporary romanticism is a persuasive contender. Take, for instance, the elemental story of the first visit, which Feilden told at the opening. After cycling – “which we do to all our potential projects” - from Wakefield station under a rain cloaked sky, and arriving, drenched, he found shelter in the quarry site itself; and, while waiting for the storm to pass, began to notice the fine, changing striated layers of the quarry rock and stone. It was from this protean sheltering experience that the idea of a protective outer wall was born, a full-bodied response to working within a landscape to produce a building of, and, emerging from the earth; and echoing the surrounding sculptural sensibilities. It sounds immediate and emotional rather than a cool consideration; and also a handy story come the eventual press day – traces of romanticism in the layers of Feilden’s consciousness. However, these traces then went one step further. What better material than earth itself, Feilden wondered, beginning to envisage a rammed earth wall as earthbound as it was monolithic. Rain, storm-clouds and a love of cycling had brought Feilden to the quarry decision. By the time he left, both the sculptural/landscape and concurrent technical journey that was to consume the rest of the project, had been set.

Photo right - Oliver Lowenstein

Two principles are at play in the building; the air bound lightness and open transparency of the restaurant, and the earthy weight and interiority of the gallery room. Duality and tension are reflected in the earthbound, stony cavern of the gallery compared to the lightness of touch of the Douglas fir frame, and open ceiling to floor glazing. 

If the timber frame reflects a language of lightness and the gallery of monolithic solidity, each wing is joined by a shared crafted sensibility. And if the fast-moving motorway traffic a few fields away suggested speed and harried ephemerality, the quarry provides the antithesis; its stones steeped in time, history and age. The protective barrier-shelter was born, a wall emerging out of the land and, at its most literal - the gallery dug into a climbing northern ridge.

But rammed earth, though obvious and fitting for a building that was aspiring to be ‘of the earth,’ proved more complicated than Feilden, Fowles, and the studio had initially anticipated. An early stumbling block was using earth from the site. The YSP team were worried that the risk levels would prove too much, even for a relatively adventurous cultural organisation; added to which, apparently, FeildenFowles’ search for experienced rammed earth expertise, turned out equally challenging. In 2017 a decision was made to switch to rammed concrete, while looking to create an earthy palette from materials taken from near-by sites. Stepping  sideways, a new plan emerged, leading the architects to a material and a technical journey which came to partially define the project.

The team turned to the surrounding landscape, rich in geological strata. Different earthy aggregates and layers were uncovered, from which a composite earthy like wall could be fashioned while applying rammed concrete techniques. From the outside it looked as if the ambition had been scaled back. A series of contrasting tones, textures, sizes and exposures of different source aggregates were identified, creating a layering effect within the rammed concrete formwork. The eventual mix brought together Leicestershire granite and Magnesium Limestone which, when mixed with the quarry’s millstone grit, introducing an earthy-ish toned palette for the monolithic wall. A series of tests were conducted with specialist contractors, Northfield Construction, before the eventual 50 m rammed concrete wall began to be poured on site. Adding to the textured contrasts in the 1.2 m rammed concrete sections, the proportions of aggregate, length of cure times, and after the build jet wash pressures, were all varied.

Exhibition ongoing – Photo Peter Cook
Work ongoing – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

When completed, externally the result is considerably warmer than conventional concrete. Inside the modernist grey gallery, it is a different matter. Here again, experimenting with the material: white pigmented aggregate lightening the greys, and the roof’s lined, sawtooth bullnose underside using slatted timber in the formwork, signals FeildenFowles’ crafted approach. Above, on the roof, fluted arches, add a touch of modernist bravura. Below, a single gallery room window ensures that the disconnect with the outside world is not total.

 

Outside in contrast, the earth hues merge with woody tones, monumentality blending with the rhythm of the Douglas fir posts alternating between windows and door-ways and aligned with the single oak a short distance from the building’s south eastern corner. Warmth rather than coolness is conveyed - though I found it difficult to fully quieten a voice questioning the extent to which the rammed concrete was a sleight of hand, brought about by the rammed earth cul de sac.

Set against these points, the straight-forward post and beam system - a single timber design – is simple and resolved. The system is a variant on FeildenFowles’s exploration of contemporary timber-framing, evolving  from their Waterloo City Farm buildings, through to the current upscaled Cambridge University Homerton College refectory. As project architect Ross Perkins confirms, the design is quite similar to their self-built practice studio in the farm which, for Perkins, is clearly preferable to the usual solution of off-the-peg products. “The two buildings, visually they’re part of the same idea. And they’re not complicated to construct.” Complemented by terrazzo flooring, the light infused space exudes calmness - at least when managing the relatively modest press visit numbers - as well as a counter-balance to the gallery.

This natural lighting facilitated both by the glazing and the gallery roof lights, is complemented by passive ventilation - apart that is from in the kitchens; the latter being connected to the building’s final technical profile. An experimental passive system hidden in the dug-out ground works beside the gallery, uses the building’s air flow to stabilise humidity and temperature in the gallery, a new departure in gallery humidity and air control.  Comprising 10, 000 unfired clay bricks, air is forced through a brick labyrinth like system. Developed by Julian Cottrill at engineers Skelly & Couch from work initiated by the independent Devon engineer, Tim Padfield, the system replaced the initial hygroscopic approach, after it became clear that the latter would not work.  Technically, it’s not quite a labyrinth, Cottrill said, noting that while effectively halving humidity by 50 degrees, moderating and ensuring stable air flow, and making the Weston’s passive claims possible, the air doesn’t flow round the brick chambers corners. The system is a first in the demanding gallery building environment but has related antecedents; it is a contemporary update of the first labyrinth type passive ventilation systems, first trialled by Atelier Ten under FeildenCleggBradley’s 1999 Earth Centre Gallery Building only a few miles north east of YSP.

Outside, the landscaping is another feature to consider. For Feilden it was “very important that it didn’t have hard borders,” so the transition from building to park is soft, and semi-visible, the boulders and rocks studiedly simple in the landscaping, before the ridge climbs up to and round the gallery’s northern fringes. There, they give way to an emerging green roof populated by alpine and rock plants. The planting regime has been influenced by an early 20th century local horticulturalist, Reginald Farrer, the author of the bible of Alpine and rock planting, and includes a particular favourite from the book, Yorkshire Fog.

In the aftermath of the coming of Land and Earth art, projects emerged which took architecture’s closeness to sculpted form the next step towards an architectural expression of land art. Projects were functional, albeit in basic ways, but also primal, simple and wild.  Examples include Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Chapel, Norway’s Jenson & Skodvin’s Mortunrud Church and works by Nova Scotian architect Brian Mackay-Lyons. At times only parts of projects spoke to such Land art languages. Others made claims for their work in comparable language; Alison Brooks, for instance, describing her Newhall Be housing in the evocative phrase, ‘the suburbs as land art.’

 

 

 

Overlay with Earth art also happened, though, perhaps, because of the sheer scale of these earth works, nothing of quite their primal monumentality. Something of this experimental space between land and earth art and the architectural, in form and atmospheres, echo through the Weston, albeit through the eyes of a younger generation. The Weston, partially dug into the earthbank, and with its original aim of being ‘of the earth’ touches on this, though again at a domestic, indeed, domesticated scale.  Though a younger generation project, its sensibility is also at vivid odds to other in-between younger generations. Close to the YSP’s main entrance, is a traffic sign for Arcadia, Alec Finley’s pointed reminder of how this Yorkshire dale landscape has been worked by generations of landscape gardeners reaching back to the 18th century, and insists on hammering home how the surroundings are but natural artifice. By contrast the FeildenFowles building is relaxed about shape-shifting the ‘natural’ and making something ‘of and from the earth’, though something which, at the same time is an illusion.

Photo right - Oliver Lowenstein

The YSP’s dales are hardly wild landscapes, and the Weston is functional - a ticketing gateway and restaurant after all – but its sculptural undertones and relationship to landscape, suggests, if not land art, then land and art. Something of its structural simplicity, its original romantic aspirations, its respect for the natural, and a blurring of form and function, act as bridges to the sculptural sensibilities wrought from the immediate land. Feilden quoted Moore, “the first hole made through the stone is a revelation” and though the Earth and Land artists emerged from a more poetic, romantic period – the sixties – a particular generational romanticism informs FeildenFowles’s projects generally, more knowing, though more pragmatic, and most clearly articulated in their commitment to craft practices. Cycling through a storm to get to the site, is difficult to see as a utilitarian act.

What kind of romantic though? There are comparison’s with FeildenFowles’s YSP’s architectural – and in Fergus Feilden’s literal – forefathers.  FeildenClegg – who would evolve into becoming the Sculpture Park’s in-house architects – were, in their early pre-FCB Studio’s years, similarly drawn to the English Arts & Crafts tradition. “Our generation was one of the most romantic,” Peter Clegg noted, in a recent interview conversation about their early years. Both generations are also Cambridge Architecture School graduates, and FeildenFowles bridge their elders with the even younger, and super high profile, Assemble; the former graduating as the latter arrived. The – part-millennial - generational sensibility is both broader and different to the earlier period. Different in being more self and irony aware, plus a dash of precariat insecurity set alongside a drivenness missing from their forefather’s hippie times era. Broader in that architecture is only one accent among many driving the crafts and maker’s resurgence. For this post-crash generation, balancing romanticism with pragmaticism has become a fine art, a psychic survival strategy and a refuge. The time, effort and sweat that crafting a project requires is the symbolic gesture, against the grain of the day-in day-out ruthlessness and carelessness of the times. As if, this is all that remains.

Craft and the crafted, then, joins the Weston’s built fabric and the post-millennial maker generation. As telling, is what’s generationally missing. Earth or Land art was a 70’s generational phenomenon, there are no Land art peers among FeildenFowles’s generation, the past is all they have to look to and look back on.  Other generational gaps are clear too. Some of the commentary on the building thus far, has observed a ‘Zen-like’ ambience; not such an everyday part of earlier generational vocabularies, nor for that matter part of that of the Cambridge School. What after all is Cambridge for Zen?

Absent in the write up’s so far, have been all but passing observations on the disappearance of rammed earth from the project’s agenda. This, speaking personally, is the great disappointment of the Weston.

The anxietysurrounding the idea of rammed earth turned into a path not taken. FeildenFowles appear to have been the most enthusiastic, while the YSP senior management became increasingly nervous, bridling at the perceived risks: “Can you really do this in England?” programme director Clare Lilley asked rhetorically at the press launch regarding the risk level nerves early into the project, before the whole enterprise was brought to a full stop by the main contractor, William Birch, who, in Lilley’s word wouldn’t ‘countenance’ rammed earth. Yet more might have been done before abandoning the idea. An invitation to visit Martin Rauch, Godfather of the Euro-rammed earth scene, was apparently not taken up, and discussions with the UK’s most experienced rammed earth builder, Rowland Keable, quickly foundered.

For the mainstream architectural media and architects alike, this shift is neither here nor there. But at a broader level, a showcase rammed earth building at the YSP could have been influential. A demonstration of what is possible within a mainstream context, particularly given how slow the progress is towards scaling earth buildings. And if there were real substantive and structural challenges, rather than risk and costs factors, then an open source access report regarding the Weston’s rammed earth’s key issues, and how in the future these might be navigated, would be useful.

 

Although only a small and comparatively ‘enlightened’ example amidst the ocean wide indifference of industry to the hegemony of concrete, writing in the week of the Extinction Rebellion protests, this aspect of the YSP’s Weston project feels symptomatic; reflecting how far a genuinely ecological sustainability building culture is from realisation any time soon, let alone by Extinction Rebellion’s deadline - 2025. An earthen building would not only have pulled YSP towards more present-day sustainability debates but also provided an opportunity to open up ecological conversations between its built fabric and the centre’s environmental art works, story and history. Though there are sustainable features, including a reduced concrete ratio in the mix, and the labyrinth humidity stabilising system, the retreat to concrete clearly blunts the original, more radical environmental statement.

Photo - Jonty Wilde
Photo - Oliver Lowenstein

That indifference, encompassing a resigned acceptance of the narrow, conservative parameters the profession can work with,  reminded me of something Keable, the rammed earth specialist, had recently voiced to me in conversation. When asked, he wrote it out for me again: “It is seductive, it is a drug, a powder which satisfies all desires, and backed by ‘codes’ it has legal sanction and insurance behind it. If it ignores the inherent climate harms involved, well, so be it. The role of designer, builder, specifier is not about changing the rules but following them....”

 

 

 

 

Back with the other fourteen architectural journalists on the press visit bus to Wakefield station, rammed earth or no rammed earth, it isn’t part of the conversation. The architectural press view environmentalism as a secondary issue, reflected in their write ups thus far. In the days that followed the sense I got was of a media momentum building for these late thirty somethings; the star making machinery cranking up several notches. Indeed, the Weston is a lovely project, marrying sensitive and warm architecture with sculptural form and landscape. But it is also a missed opportunity.  It is all going swimmingly for FeildenFowles at the moment. I want to hope that if such an opportunity comes their way again, after touching the earth they’ll dig in and hold their ground.