Paul Hyett, 17 September 2019
Making time at the right time
Off for a stroll in Sherwood Forest during a weekend trip to Nottingham, it struck me just how well Robyn Hood’s mission fitted with the ambitions of the UK Welfare State which sponsored so much of the significant architecture of the post-World War II era.
In the early 13th century, the legendary character symbolized a free spirit to oppressed common people, fighting against tyranny, righting wrongs, and setting up his own system of justice by ‘robbing the rich to pay the poor’.
In the mid-20th century, with the advent of television, Richard Greene’s immaculately manicured Robin Hood graced our black and white screens, his romantic mission following the New Jerusalem programme originated by the Atlee government of 1945 to 1951.
Across the water, as of 1949, another heroic but starkly contrasting figure found equal favour on much larger American screens: The Lone Ranger. Different worlds, different times, different roles: as Robin struck a chord in Britain’s austere post World War II era in a fight for fairness and the redistribution of wealth, so the Lone Ranger garnered American support in his fearless efforts to subdue outlaws. You could see it as the redistribution of wealth versus wealth protection.
Back to Sherwood Forest where I stumbled across the new visitor centre. The complex replaced modest facilities and is located on a new site. It’s at once very good, and somewhat disappointing, and it’s the ‘why’ of that disappointment that struck me most.
On paper, the scheme looked more than promising: witness the pre-build reports of the unveiled £5.3 million scheme back in March 2016. And witness a local press review shortly after its opening:
‘The appearance of the building and its decor and maintenance is all stunning, with the building and its materials fitting perfectly into the setting and the views of the woodland provided through the full-height glass wall adding greatly to the visitor experience…’
Praise indeed. The programme is clearly tailored around a worthy agenda: Sherwood Forest, home to 1,000 ancient oaks, receives some 350,000 visits a year. Culture, heritage, amenity, revenue …. a facility to enhance their experience is a no-brainer. And success so often breeds success: the building, completed in late 2018, was well into its stride in time for the 2019 annual Robin Hood Festival (now in its 35th year) that ran for six days last month. The festival and the building will no doubt each contribute much to the success of the other for decades to come.
All good…. So why do I complain? Simply this: given that the design is as striking as it is sensitive, confident and adventurous in form, subtle and restrained in palette, its execution is a disappointment. The disappointment concerns the detailing, but I suspect it’s not a lack of skill that lies at the root of all this – either design skill or craft skill. I am sure it’s a faulty procurement process.
This is certainly not intended as a criticism of the architects, or anyone else on the design or client team. Or indeed the contractors. I have no doubt about the good intentions of all concerned, and of the relentless effort that went into the delivery. And the statistics all read well: Good energy rating, excellent accessibility provisions, great social metrics of 91.8 % construction spend and 58.3% local labour, both drawn from within 40 miles of the site.
But something is very wrong with a procurement process that can do so much damage to a basically good design, for I have no doubt that the architects – a distinguished firm with a great portfolio – would have wished to spend more time at the right time on the details which, as we all know, are so much a part of any good building’s quality. And I have no doubt that the builder – a good local firm – would have wished to invest more of their people’s skills in the execution of those details. But somehow their best efforts have been compromised by constraints of time.
By this I don’t mean more time was needed overall. My guess is that this is more about interruptions and delays disrupting process and refinement than it is about simply having more time. In short, I suspect that detailed design was done too late and construction was started too early.
The originally programmed construction period of 58 weeks had to be reduced to 46, and I have no doubt that this compromised the optimum sequencing of design work. And I bet that is only half the story – there would have been constant delays to the pre-construction design work as reports were written and funding sourced.
The evidence is all around to be seen: the rainwater downpipe that is routed over the large extract grille to the side of the main entrance; the mess of services running amuck over the cafeteria; the clumsy detailing of the staircase stringers and handrails in the route from cafeteria to shop. The crimped metal fascia that should be curved. All in all, this represents a struggle to take and apply natural materials – timber structure and shingle cladding – without sufficient opportunity for craft, or adequate time (at the right time) in terms of detailing.
More design time needed?
A friend once told me ‘You rarely get a second chance to make a first impression’. The same is almost always true with building. You rarely get a second chance to build it again.
That is why we must take more care to produce conditions that are consistently conducive to the delivery of fine design. There are plenty of badly designed buildings around. The good ones must be as good as their promise.