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Tuesday22 July 2014

Caistor Arts & Heritage Centre by Jonathan Hendry Architects

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This reinvention of a Primitive Methodist chapel in Lincolnshire as an arts and heritage centre is one of the early manifestations of the Big Society

The BBC will soon be showing six programmes called Village SOS following six projects that hope to help regenerate and rejuvenate six villages across the UK, including this one in Lincolnshire. It is a kind of Grand Designs for rural communities, fronted by Sarah Beeny and financed by the Big Lottery Fund. In this parody of austerity years with cuts affecting anything public and everything that doesn’t directly contribute to the national GDP, the Big Lottery Fund (known simply as Big) remains one of the primary opportunities for small arts, voluntary or community projects to receive funding.

If the lottery is a voluntary tax on the poorer members of society, then Big is the mechanism by which it directs the surplus to what it considers the most worthy and needy. Big preceded Cameron’s idea of a “Big Society” but could perhaps contribute to one of its vague definitions since it requires groups to organise themselves and then raise their own money by bidding for a grant. This is what a group of people in Caistor did in order to achieve their ambition of turning an old Primitive Methodist chapel into the Caistor Arts & Heritage Centre.

Caistor is a small market town of about 2,800 people in one of the most sparsely populated districts in England. It is on the northern edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds, a few miles inland from the ports of Grimsby and Immingham, the UK’s largest. These “flatscapes with containers” as Reyner Banham called them, today provide the majority of the area’s employment, importing from the east what we no longer make, as well as generating energy from the increasing number of wind farms off the east coast.

Traditionally, of course, this area is agricultural, and farming still dominates the gently undulating landscape, although the number of farm labourers, who would have originally formed most of the church’s congregation, has been in decline for a number of years. Pevsner called Caistor “an agreeable early 19th century red-brick development, notably around the square”.

This square is the centre of the town and hosts the market which, at 2pm on the beautiful sunny spring day when I visited, was unfortunately already packing up and making way for normal car parking duties. A far cry from 1858, when a British record of 60,000 sheep were traded there. Neither the bleating of the sheep, nor that of the Primitive Methodist “Ranters” who attracted an open-air congregation of up to 4,000 followers in the town in the early 19th century, will return. But it is unfortunate that a general decline in employment opportunities and the usual out-of-town supermarkets of the late 20th century has led to many of Caistor’s shops closing and elegant Georgian houses being boarded up even in the centre. Enter the arts and heritage industries with their putatively magic regenerative powers.

The library is lined with black MDF shelving.

Source: David Grandorge

The library is lined with black MDF shelving.

Caistor was established by the Romans, who were perhaps attracted to its mildly hilly location – a rarity in Lincolnshire. It is also situated on the Viking Way, a 147-mile-long path between the Humber Bridge and Oakham in Rutland. It is this history that is the basis of the “heritage” half of the centre’s vision. Apparently people have been finding Roman artefacts in their gardens and keeping them in garages and attics. The idea behind this project was to provide a public space to keep and showcase them.

The “art” half of the centre’s vision was to provide a space where local artists, both amateur and professional, could meet, teach, learn, present and perhaps sell their work. Furthermore, a disused building would be brought back to life. The local library then decided to move in too, agreeing to a 25-year lease of space in the centre, which gave a long-term financial viability to the scheme.

Hendry won the job because of his sensible, simple, appropriate response

The confluence of arts, heritage and regeneration ticked all Big’s boxes and £433,000 was duly granted in May 2010. Ten architectural practices were invited to compete for the job, and Jonathan Hendry won because of his sensible, simple, appropriate response. After the obligatory London post-graduate years, Hendry had returned to his native Lincolnshire in 2000 to set up Jonathan Hendry Architects, and has been infusing an elegant architectural service to the local area ever since.

The building to be revived was the sturdy brick and slate Primitive Methodist Westgate chapel built into the hill just round the corner from the square. It was originally constructed in 1838 and rebuilt in 1869. Following the unification of the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists in the 1950s, the chapel was no longer needed, and in 1966 it was transferred to Lincolnshire County Council which turned it into a youth centre, a role it performed until the turn of the millennium.

According to Hendry, the original internal floor level of the chapel followed the external ground from the front doors and up the hill at the back, as evidenced by the pew fixings on the side walls. Even in the sixties, a level floor was traditionally preferred for youth centres, so a floating floor was inserted at the level of the rear entrance and extended to the front, cutting the large wooden front doors in half and rendering the obvious entrances inaccessible. For the Arts & Heritage Centre, this clearly had to be addressed. Hendry responded with a logical, linear organisation of the programme with an open circulation axis to the right of the plan. He removed the front half of the offending floor, supporting the rear half on a retaining wall.

When the youth centre’s ceiling, which cut across the original large roof trusses, was also removed this left an impressively tall triple-height space at the front of house, with the original trusses reaching up to the apex. This houses the centre’s café, accessed once more from the large front doors, now glazed.

The building is fortunate to have a south-facing terrace in front and the floor, made of limestone taken from the Metheringham quarry near Lincoln, seamlessly flows from outside into the café without even hint of recognition of the threshold. As well as the glazed doors, the front facade has been punctured by two additional small windows at ground-floor level, maintaining the strict symmetry by replacing the outer two of three original indented brick arches, directly underneath a trinity of tall, narrow gothic windows that accept light deep into the building.

The timber window and door frames are painted a muted battleship grey to complement the dark grey lime mortar with which the facade was repointed. Oak steps on the axis to the right lead up from the predominantly oak-panelled café to the small double-height lending library. At this level, the wall panelling turns into black shelving which in plan spirals round into the centre to create a small children’s den, complete with delightful child-scale window seat. At the rear of the building, in the original chapel space, the ceiling drops to make the space a single, more intimate storey with internet workstations and heritage wall.

Finally we reach the heritage and arts spaces, the latter a small, new extension forming a separate top-lit gallery with cupboards and sinks neatly concealed behind the wall-height doors. The heritage aspect of the centre currently consists of a wall-mounted timeline, several artefacts housed above the library shelving, and a disproportionately good local history section of the library, without which this article would be considerably less informed.

The black MDF is offset by bespoke oak furniture.

Source: David Grandorge

The black MDF is offset by bespoke oak furniture.

The process from receiving the grant to opening must have been disappointing for the BBC’s production team as, despite the ambitious timing, it went smoothly and arrived on budget and on time. It will be interesting to see how Beeny manages to inject some drama into it. Hendry must be given some credit for negotiating directly with the shop-fitting contractor, Wilton Cobley from Grimsby, instead of tendering the project. This sped up the process considerably (after starting last October, the centre opened on April 9) and offered greater price and timing certainty. The chapel must also be given credit for not springing any nasty surprises on the team, as is the wont of old buildings.

The building works – and works well. The progression from the light, high public café at the front to the smaller, more secluded private spaces at the back is particularly pleasing. A library and café might ordinarily be uncomfortable neighbours acoustically and the acoustic plasterboard has a more positive visual than acoustic impact. But this is primarily a popular fiction lending library, rather than a sit-down-and-concentrate research library, where you’re more likely to borrow a Dan Brown and read it on the terrace with some locally produced organic ice cream than research an article on the translation of a Primitive Methodist chapel to an arts and heritage centre. For a public building, it’s also nicely non-institutional and domestically scaled and detailed. Everything above head height is white and everything below is of a quality material and bespoke design.

For a public building, it’s non-institutional and domestically scaled

I only really have two criticisms of the building, neither of which Hendry could do much about. Firstly, the obligatory stair lift to comply with DDA regulations sits still for 99% of the time polluting the urbane café with its institutional aesthetic. Can nobody design a non-institutional stair lift? Preferably in battleship grey with cogs and pulleys and block and tackle. Secondly, the use of painted and routed MDF to imitate wall panelling will always, in my mind at least, be associated with Handy Andy and Changing Rooms. But a £350,000 budget with 13m of underpinning can’t have left much for oak panelling throughout. Hendry opted instead to spend the money on bespoke desks and tables which would have looked terrible in MDF.

It is telling that the arts and heritage spaces – the very things that name the building – are tucked away at the back. The café and library will undoubtedly and deservedly be the most popular spaces. It will take a sustained and heroic curatorial effort to keep the gallery and heritage walls turning over with new artefacts of interest to attract people beyond the immediate local community and already overachieving schools.

The original Village SOS proposal claims that the centre was supposed to be a strange attractor for tourism, tapping into the heritage industry’s rejuvenating pixie dust. But that’s as mythical as Peter Pan. A building exists because there is a need for an activity, not the other way around and I can’t imagine many people driving to Caistor on those slow Lincolnshire roads behind various white-goods-on-wheels on their way to Cleethorpes, no matter how rare a Roman coin or comb is at the destination. The centre provides a pleasant local amenity, employment for a handful of people and volunteering opportunities for others, including in the library. It is, in short, a pilot project for the big society.

Project team
Architect
Jonathan Hendry Architects, Client Caistor Arts & Heritage Centre,
Structural engineer and CDM coordinator Alan Wood & Partners, Quantity surveyor Thornton Firkin, Heritage consultant Vertigo Creative Studio, Main contractor Wilton Cobley

Suppliers and contractors
Electrical contractor AGM, Rooflight manufacturer Rooflight Architectural, Timber windows and furniture Wilton Cobley, Oak floor Havwoods, Pendant lights designed by JHA, made by AGM, Stone floor Centurian Dimensional Stone, Upholstery Rowlands Upholstery

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