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Friday25 July 2014

Stanton Williams’s double decker delight at Cadbury’s Bournville

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Two dramatic full-height atriums lie at the heart of Stanton Williams’ remodelling of a 1927 block as the administrative centre of Cadbury’s Bournville chocolate factory

The village of Bournville is one of the great monuments of 19th century philanthropy and a key project in the development of volume housing in this country. It was the initiative of the chocolate factory owner, George Cadbury, who in 1879 moved his business to a site on the banks of the river Bourn, 3km to the south-west of Birmingham.

Cadbury was a Quaker with a keen interest in improving the lives of the working poor and duly set about the construction of a model village on land adjacent to his plant. When the estate layout was established in 1894, the only comparable endeavour was Port Sunlight, the model village that Lord Leverhulme was then building for the workers of the Lever soap factory in Merseyside.

The first phase of Bournville is largely the work of William Alexander Harvey, an architect who was just 20 years old when Cadbury appointed him. Harvey abandoned the terraced typologies that were then the format of most workers’ housing in favour of generously spaced cottages in variegated arts and crafts styles, each of which came equipped with fruit trees as standard.

The chocolate works itself was also a model of its time. Conceived as “a factory in a garden” it was provided with sports fields, a park and swimming pool — facilities to which the workers had free access as long as they respected the strict segregation of genders on which Cadbury insisted.

On his death in 1922 George was succeeded as chairman of Cadbury Brothers by his nephew, William, a man who proved an able protector of the Cadbury vision, severing trade with countries where evidence of slavery was found and establishing one of the earliest company pension schemes. William’s monument is the dining block, which he constructed at the plant in 1927 to designs by the company’s own architects’ department. A vast brick and stone edifice which freely combines classical and Tudor motifs, it provides the plant with its principal address, at Bournville Lane. Its programme was extremely varied, incorporating not only dining facilities but also an 850-seat concert hall, library, club rooms and a doctor’s and dentist’s surgery.

In the past 40 years Cadbury has expanded its operations globally, with the effect that staff numbers at the Bournville plant have declined. In 2002, this prompted the company to commission a masterplan for the site’s future development. Its architect, Stanton Williams, developed a proposal for the dining block — which by this point was significantly underused and had fallen into a state of disrepair — using it as the sole site of all the plant’s administration activities. This would enable the company to demolish a little-loved 1960s tower which stood within the complex and also to vacate a building it was renting on the perimeter of the site.

The practice was appointed to develop a scheme for the dining block’s remodelling and that work has recently been completed at a cost of £30 million. The project represents a highly intrusive piece of surgery: much of the building’s interior was scooped out and each of its elevations very dramatically adjusted. The building is unlisted and were it not for the fact that it lies within a conservation area, there might have been a strong case to make for its demolition.

The project was an intrusive piece of surgery: much of the interior was scooped out

 

And yet, the extent of Stanton Williams’ interventions feels well judged. The practice has succeeded in defending those qualities that were most vivid in the original building — the bluntness of its massing, its monolithic materiality and sheer scale — while adjusting its mode of expression in response to a significant change of use.

The west elevation has been stripped of its elevated terrace.

Credit: Peter Cook

The west elevation has been stripped of its elevated terrace.

As originally designed, the dining block’s south-facing street frontage was a closed affair. The main entrance was located midway along its length but its scale was modest and the surrounding facade fenestrated sparingly. In the new scheme, all this has changed. The central of the three bays that comprise this facade has been replaced with a heavily glazed assembly that permits views deep into the reconfigured interior.

It takes the form of half a dozen massive brick piers that are set perpendicular to the street and support a wall of full-height glass on their inside edge. Their scale and spacing approximates that of the giant order pilasters that were applied to the former elevation and which still adorn the adjacent bays, while the narrow band of brickwork that crowns them corresponds to the adjoining parapet.

The relationship between new and old is further enforced by the use of blue bricks on the leading corners of the piers, a subtle decorative detail that features both on the pilasters and window openings of the existing building. Although the quantity of glazing is much increased, the ambition has clearly been to maintain a reading of the building as a single entity and in this respect, it proves significant that only when we stand immediately in front of the new facade does the glass becomes visible. Looking from down the length of Bournville Lane all we see is masonry and a series of stainless steel mesh screens that occupy the depth of the piers.

This elevation represents the front face of a new structure that extends through the full depth of the building and is bookended by the retained wings to either side — a strategy that recalls Hopkins’ 1992 remodelling of Bracken House in the City of London. Originally, a centrally located courtyard dropped down through the upper two storeys, admitting light to the ground floor dining room via a glazed roof. This doughnut-like arrangement has now been exchanged for an H-shaped plan, formed by two full height atriums that rise directly behind the north and south facades. In a building in which even the standard ceiling heights are pretty palatial — the ground floor rises to 4.5 metres — these spaces are of an epic scale.

The standard section is essentially dictated by the levels of the retained fabric. A raised floor has been introduced throughout and in the few places where problematic changes of level did occur it proved possible to lose them by varying the depth of the void. The raised floor doubles as the plenum of an air diffusion system, introducing fresh air at low level which is ultimately extracted at the top of the atria. The system demands an open relationship between the offices and the voids with the effect that, save for a couple of meeting rooms on each floor, the whole environment is one unobstructed space.

Looking down the length of Bournville Lane, the new glazing is obscured from view.

Credit: Peter Cook

Looking down the length of Bournville Lane, the new glazing is obscured from view.

Of the original design’s four facades, the only one that communicated a sense of openness was the west elevation. Designed in response to the adjacency of the men’s recreation grounds it was glazed extensively and long balconies were carried across its upper two levels. The ground-floor dining room was also equipped with a deep terrace that extended for the elevation’s full width. While this platform represented one of the building’s most attractive features, it was achieved at some cost to the interior. The building has a basement — or more accurately a lower ground level as the steep fall of the ground away from Bournville Lane actually allows it to be accessed at level from the north.

The west frontage was the only one where windows could be introduced

 

The west frontage was the only one where windows could be readily introduced — the south wall is below ground, the east end of the building is taken up by the concert hall and the north addresses the factory across a narrow service road — but the presence of the terrace prevented this. Stanton Williams has therefore removed it, opening up a range of windows and establishing an external seating area at the lower level. This move has made it possible to strip out the warren of changing rooms that formerly occupied the building’s bottom floor and to establish a new dining room in its place.

There is actually evidence that the original terrace was an afterthought — it masked masonry detailed to an otherwise inexplicably high standard — and the change certainly isn’t to the detriment of the elevation as a whole. In fact, standing in the recreation ground one might struggle to recognise the difference. The wall that previously formed the terrace’s leading edge has been retained but now serves to protect people from falling into the sunken area. The impact of these changes to the interior has been transformative, but the basement does remain the one part of the scheme that feels compromised by the limitations of the existing fabric. Daylight is still in short supply and ventilating the deep plan has necessitated the introduction of air conditioning.

In order to allow the dining room to be used by the entire factory, a bridge spans between the building’s north elevation and the plant on the far side of the road. It is this end of the structure that has seen the most comprehensive change. As the concert hall only extends through two-thirds of the building’s depth, the new structure has been allowed to fill out the remainder, presenting a narrow frontage to the east as well as forming a good two-thirds of the north facade. As with the new entrance, the material palette is drawn directly from the existing fabric and the junction between new and old is handled with admirable directness.

The north-east corner.

Credit: Peter Cook

The north-east corner.

The glazed links that have been a characteristic trope of Stanton Williams’ past extensions of historic structures are notably absent, consolidating the sense of the whole as a unified conglomerate. Although the windows on these facades are exceptionally tall, the area of brickwork between them is considerable, conjuring a very monumental presence indeed. That effect is felt particularly strongly on the north-east corner, where the ground is at its lowest and the blue brick plinth from which the walls rise is consequently at its most imposing.

There is still some work to be undertaken. The concert hall currently lies mothballed, although a number of dummy openings have been introduced in the wall that it shares with the offices. The plan is that the room will eventually be transformed into a conference centre. There is also an intention that, once the 1960s tower has been demolished, a new entrance to the complex will be run through its site. This will enable the closure of the present works entrance, which extends between the dining block’s east elevation and GE Lewin’s fine 1904 bath building.

In its place a landscaped area will be established onto which the dining block will open by way of a new entrance at basement level.

Once this whole ensemble is completed, the complex will present a radically enhanced image to Bournville Lane. The message to visitors and, more importantly still, to Cadbury’s workforce, is clear: that the company’s culture of socially-minded patronage is alive and well.

Original print headline - Double decker

project team

Client Cadbury Trebor Bassett, Architect Stanton Williams, Executive architect Weedon Partnership, Fit-out interior designer Morey Smith, Structural engineer Faber Maunsell, Services engineer Cundall, Project manager Atisreal, Shell and core contractor Balfour Beatty Construction, Fit-out contractor ISG Interior Exterior

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Stanton Williams are one of the most under rated practices in the UK. Everything they do has a touch of poetry and modesty about it. Someone chuck an award at them FFS.

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  • Give those architects a Dairy Milk. I am not entirely familiar with the project but what I can see here from the pictures taken down Bournville lane is, retraint, and that is a trait a bit lacking in todays architectural practices. Wayne Colquhoun Liverpool Preservation Trust

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