Feilden Fowles’s New Visitor Center for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park Is a Quiet Triumph
A softly-spoken essay in subtle details, the new visitor center is less about itself and more about the dramatic landscape it inhabits.
“Boring architecture? Yes please,” the former Los Angeles Times architecture critic Chris Hawthorne proudly stated in 2017. It was the title of an article which called for “quiet” architecture that is “spare, solid and unhurried” and tries hard to not try hard.
“Quiet” is probably the best way of describing London studio Feilden Fowles’s latest project: a $4.8 million visitor center for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in northern England. It is quiet in a literal sense: The relatively small, single-story structure shields the park from cars and trucks roaring by less than 300 feet away. “We had to create a threshold,” says Fergus Feilden, co-founder and director at Feilden Fowles. “Before, the park petered out into the car park and the motorway.”
“Solid” is perhaps the second-best way to describe the entrance, officially named The Weston in honor of a major donor, the Garfield Weston Foundation. For visitors approaching from the highway-facing parking lot, the building’s 160-foot-long, earth-colored slab of concrete is only punctured by its narrow entrance doorway. Upon first glance, the monolithic structure looks like an extrusion of soil from the adjacent grassy mound.
Echoing his partner, Edmund Fowles explains that the studio didn’t want to compete with the diverse sculptures installed on the grounds. In its 42 years, the park, inhabited by follies, geese, and sheep, has become a prestigious venue for artists including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and James Turrell. “The architecture should be servicing the landscape and servicing people viewing art,” Fowles notes.
Beyond the monolithic wall, visitors are treated to a snapshot view of the park’s rolling hills, diverse greenery, and sculptures through an inwardly-curving curtain wall. The park vista comes fully into frame as visitors walk past the shop and down slightly into the restaurant to take in this a sweeping gesture to the landscape.
It’s a truly delightful experience for the park to be revealed in such a way. If the concrete facade felt heavy, the interiors are decidedly light. A timber frame, which on a sunny day casts rhythmic internal shadows, maintains the earthy patina while grayscale terrazzo flooring reflects light guzzled up by the glassy west-facing facade.
Concrete can be found inside, too. A new top-lit art gallery sited north of the restaurant features a series of glorious angled concrete soffits that bathe the space in sunlight, more than making up for the lack of a glass curtain wall. Here the aggregate employed is softer and more tactile than that which is used externally. It’s just a shame the concrete is out of reach. The soffits extend beyond the building’s roofline but are hidden externally by a translucent, fluted, fiberglass crown—easily The Weston’s most flamboyant architectural element.
There are some clever tectonics at play here as well. Behind the internal walls are some 20,000 unfired bricks which act like a humidity sponge, regulating the gallery’s environment and creating thermal mass in the process.
In “Boring architecture? Yes please,” Hawthorne himself drew on an essay about playwriting, by Sam Kahn. As Hawthorne noted, there are evident parallels between theater and architecture, and these are even more apparent at The Weston: The building is merely a stage curtain, opening and closing a play in which the park acts like a 500-acre stage and the sculpture the protagonists.
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