Acle Bridge Visitor Centre Competition
Floating on stilts above the flat Norfolk marshland, the timber walkway gently rolls towards an airy building of geometric shapes and spartan angles. This would have been the Acle Bridge Visitor Centre as designed by Stephen George + Partners (SGP).
When Kanti Chhapi, Director at SGP, came across the competition by the Broads Authority for a new £750,000 visitor attraction, he circulated it around the SGP offices as an interesting opportunity for us to indulge our creative flair in a strongly design-led solution. It was felt that the beat way forward was to organise an of inter-office competition developed in lunch times and early mornings for our local teams to rough out ideas for the new Visitor Centre.
The brief wasn’t onerous. The local Broads Authority owned a low-lying site by the Acle Bridge in the heart of the Norfolk Broads and wanted an exemplary visitor attraction that would both stand out from and be sensitive to the local landscape. The new centre needed space for two key objectives. The first was to raise the profile of the area and its qualities by providing visitors and locals with information on the activities and attractions on offer nearby. The second was education; to engage children and adults with the history of the area and the development of the landscape, especially in the big issues – the importance of managing water, climate change and sea level rise, and the need for sustainability. Our ultimate design for the main building included space for a permanent exhibition as well as separate areas for school visits and tutorial or seminar groups.
The site already contained a historic single storey thatched building that acted as stocking up point for passing water craft and the new design needed to cater for this important target audience, providing excellent facilities including showers, accessible outside the visitor centre’s opening hours. Additional facilities, such as a new bicycle hire kiosk were also added to the expanded building.
Various designs were drafted up by teams in both Leeds and Leicester, but in the end, it was the former’s design that became the chosen one. Collaboration didn’t end there though, and despite our Leicester colleagues moving to their own new, self-designed offices in the middle of the competition, Anna Chorzępa and Lina Geseviciute were able to help with the presentation and the CGI views.
The starting point for the competition design was some research done by Steve Batson, Director at SGP, into the landscape and settlements in the area, which brought to light studies on the prehistoric people’s use of wood poles or beams driven into the marshland to create a sort of stepping-stone bridge across the boggy landscape. Being in a flood zone, part of the brief included protecting structures against flooding, so the idea of a raised timber causeway took shape. Running from the car park to a viewing platform at the top of the centre, it would provide a sense of the landscape as the predominant character of the site, and of the transition from the solid earth to the watery feel of the marsh. In a landscape with few high points, the viewing platform takes full advantage of the 270 degree views across the marshes and up the river and places the visitor at a vantage point above the rippling water and below the broad Norfolk skies.
Also built on stilts to avoid the risk of flooding, the ground floor café enjoys panoramic riverside views, whilst expansive picture windows on the first and second floors frame the views from various classrooms and exhibition spaces. Sustainable timber exteriors settle the structure into the landscape, echoing the once mighty forests of oaks that were felled to build the great Tudor warships. (Acle means “a clearing in an oak forest.”) Galvanised steel panels, mellowed into a rust colour, gently add texture and interest to the timber facades.
Most sites are accessed only on foot or by car, but the Acle Bridge site was already a popular overnight stop-over for boats cruising the Broads, as well as hikers on the Weavers’ Way. Our design considered not only the first impressions of the buildings from the different “entrances” but how best to channel access to the buildings from the various points. As part of our sustainability commitment, we had already decided to keep on site the material excavated for the causeway piles. So the idea became to form the material into a berm, an earth mound, which would not only help support the end of the causeway but provide the guiding edge of the access way into the lower floor of the centre.Although it wasn’t asked for in the brief, our design suggested a new use for the existing WC building that would be demolished in the plan. As it’s very difficult to get planning permission for new structures in such a sensitive landscape, our idea was to use the existing footprint to create a new holiday rental cottage, to form an additional income stream for the Authority.
But it was not to be. Whether our design was too ambitious or something else, we’ll never know. But I still love the design itself and the cross-office collaboration that brought it about, so even though it will never be built, I’m glad we created it.