Selected Texts by AOC
Selected Texts about AOC
Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
Spartan hedonism:
de Rijke Marsh Morgan in Blackpool
The Festival House adds useful art to the surreal scene of the Golden Mile, finds Geoff Shearcroft. Photos: Alex de Rijke.

3pm, 12th January 2012. My first wedding in Blackpool. I watched the cream vintage Rolls cruise down the Promenade, beneath a blue January sky. It swung a right across two busy lanes of cars, bobbed over the tram rails and came to a stop by the leeside entrance to Festival House. The waiting crowd clustered around the edges of the entrance, tanned bridesmaids mingling with passing pensioners on mobility scooters whilst film students covered all the angles and in-laws looked down from the first-floor roof terrace. The nervous groom visibly gulped, framed in the window of the second-floor ceremony hall jutting out above. After a theatrical pause the bride stepped out of the car, her white veil nearly blown away in the Atlantic gusts. She posed for photographs with her entourage in front of the car, briefly appearing to glow gold from the reflected light of the building behind. And then the whole party was gone, through the glazed sliding doors, into the lift and up to the second floor for the big 'I do'. 'It's the fairytale ending to our story,' said bride Kelly to the Blackpool Gazette. 'We have both lived in Blackpool our whole lives and we love this town.'

Like the opening of any 'iconic' building that forms part of a significant regeneration project in the UK a lot of spin surrounds the opening of Festival House but it is rare to find such a glowing endorsement from the very first users. Blackpool's Register Office has relocated from an introverted, single-storey, brick building in a parking lot on the edge of the town centre to a £2.85m gold-clad 'mini-tower' perched on the seafront. Super-intendent registrar David Hill is so delighted he has delayed his retirement to further enjoy his vocation in the new workplace. DRMM Architects' initial concept for the scheme was to 'frame couples exchanging vows within a vertical view of Blackpool Tower, with registry and reception offering horizontal views of the Atlantic.' This diagram has been emphatically delivered. The top-floor ceremony hall creates a forced perspective centred upon a trapezoidal portrait window framing the tower beyond. Here the bride and groom stand, a photo opportunity for the internal audience, an inhabited shop window to the diners in Harry Ramsden's opposite. Dramatic upon entering, the room offers little more than the potential view of the couple silhouetted against the sole south-facing window. Adjacent is a small room for the secluded signing of the register, with long strip windows revealing the Atlantic horizon, doubled in a mirrored storage wall. (After the iconic intensity of the ceremony hall I wonder if anyone will pause before putting pen to paper as they gaze at the enormity of the mirrored horizon and glimpse the eternity they are about to sign up for.)

Since becoming SuperDutch architecture's media-friendly representation of choice, the diagram has taken an increasing hold upon architectural production. Its legible logic has been coupled with the formally iconic to produce an internationally sellable design methodology, a strategy pursued here if the council's venue brochure is anything to go by. But as the godfather of the diagram, Peter Eisenman, reflected in his Diagram Diaries, 'it was realised that geometry does not merely transform itself from a diagram to architecture.' Consequently, he says, 'the diagram becomes more of an engine in the projects rather than something which transforms itself into a physical reality.' At Festival House the construction of the diagram in cross-laminated timber (CLT), internally exposed, reinforces its relentless legibility and its sustainable credentials whilst giving the disconcerting impression of being inside the architect's balsa model, glue joints and all. The homogenous consistency is unnerving; the material has thickness rather than weightiness, legible grain but little sense of scale.

In Porto's Casa da Musica, Rem Koolhaas relied on Petra Blaisse to humanise his timber-lined, open-ended box with gold leaf applique and lush layers of fabric. Here left undecorated, straight off the artic, the CLT provides few opportunities for visual delight or the myriad associations that can enrich ceremonial places. Alex de Rijke talks about the decorative potential of the material but has chosen to leave it raw to create a 'spartan hedonism'. There may be an argument for leaving the timber bare to allow for its slow adaptation by users over time but the bare totality of the surface in such a public building sets up an exclusivity that feels unlikely to be overcome in the imaginable future.

Externally the hedonism comes to the fore, achieving the architects' ambition for 'a bit of bling'. DRMM has consistently preferred material over form as its chosen field for innovation, but with Festival House it has had the rare opportunity to create a freestanding, publicly-occupied form. With outwardly pitched walls exaggerating its scale from all angles, the faceted figure of the mini-tower has a distinct sculptural presence that adds yet another flavour to the sampled surrealism of the promenade. When opened in 1894 the Blackpool tower was a cheekily familiar half-sized approximation of the Eiffel Tower, completed just five years after the original. DRMM may have subconsciously followed this Euro-sampling precedent by creating a one-sixth scale take on Neutelings Riedijk's Shipping & Transport College (2006), filtered through the material aspirations of Bearth & Deplazes' New Monte Rosa Hut (2009). Since InnoCAD's Golden Nugget in Graz (2005) there has been a glut of gold-shingled buildings but here it seems appropriate, the dappled stainless steel shingles shimmering through a broad spectrum as the day wanes and the illuminations kick in.

Unlike the freestanding Parisian original, the Blackpool Tower sits atop a six-storey building, home to the Tower Circus, Aquarium and Ballroom. A veritable social condenser, the building has enjoyed over a hundred years as a place for intensifying human experience and relations. Festival House shares similar, though more prudish, cross-programming ambitions, with a cafe and tourist information centre at its base. These are not yet up and running, leaving a ground floor void. This lack is reinforced by the muted politeness of the tilted monopitch cafe pavilion, a seemingly off-note in the playful collage of Tower Festival Headland, the redeveloped public space at the base of the tower. ReBlackpool, the development agency responsible for this self-proclaimed 'People's Playground', has positively challenged the post-Bilbao orthodoxy by investing in the public realm rather than a signature building, giving precedence to landscape over building, experience over object.

De Rijke has recently commenced his tenure as dean of the Royal College of Art's expanding architecture school with a commitment to researching and engaging with sustainable materials and manufacturing processes to create a school that defines architecture as 'useful art'. Considering this academic agenda in practice, Festival House's initial success as a place for civil ceremonies suggests it may indeed be very useful, and its golden glimmer reads as one of a number of carefully curated pieces of art on the new headland. Perhaps the more elusive question, with regard to architecture's status as art, is how the building's material evangelism, and diagrammatic embrace of the tower's iconography, contribute to Blackpool's social and cultural landscape, and this will only become apparent through continued use.

Geoff Shearcroft is a co-founding director of AOC, whose recent projects include Spa Special School, south London. He teaches at London Metropolitan and Yale universities.

de Rijke Marsh Morgan London-based dRMM was founded by Alex de Rijke (pictured, left), Philip Marsh and Sadie Morgan in 1995. Major projects include One Centaur Street (2003), the transformation of Kingsdale School in south London, with the addition of a 'variable skin' ETFE roof and three engineered timber buildings (2004 and 2007) and an extension to Clapham Manor primary school (2009). Current projects include Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education, residential and commercial units for Kings Cross Central and sustainable tower housing in Norway in collaboration with Helen & Hard Architects.

Project team Architect: dRMM; design team: Alex de Rijke (far left), Saskia Koopmann (left), Russ Edwards, Adeline Wee, Sarah Brunning; contractor: FParkinson; structural engineer: Michael Hadi Associates; cost consultant: Gardinier & Theobald; services engineer: Michael Popper Associates; fire: Jeremy Gardner Associates; landscape architect: LDA Design; client: Blackpool Council.

Selected suppliers and subcontractors Cross-laminated timber: Finnforest Merk; stainless steel shingles: Rimex; blockwork: Lignacite; glazing: Forster Profile Systems.
First published in AT225, February 2012.

Published by Geoff Shearcroft Architecture Today
February, 2012