Heritage status won’t guarantee quality
While the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre may be a success, this year’s Carbuncle Cup winner proves that history is not always on your side
This has been a good summer for visitor centres, even if it’s been a rotten one for visitors. Now Stonehenge is finally being sorted out — the ways in, out and around the site as well as a new visitor centre. The stones will no longer be bound up in interminable dawdling traffic, “temporary” car parks, barbed wire and assorted detritus.
Next year Stonehenge will float — mirage like — over the unbroken prairie of closely cropped grassland. Tarmac will return to turf, at least one road will vanish and others are to be realigned. We will emerge from Denton Corker Marshall’s shallow sliver of buildings, in their glade of slender columns, and approach Stonehenge on foot or in little toy trains drawn by Land Rovers. After decades of indecision, penny-pinching and wasted effort, construction started in July.
Visitor centres were a brand-new type of building for the increasingly leisured in the late 20th century. Previously, something resembling a tongue-and-groove garden shed with a stable door was considered adequate for the person doling out tickets — and, perhaps, monochrome guidebooks — to the trickle of visitors. The long shadow of the Ministry of Works — neat, tidy and lifeless — fell on every government-owned ruin or castle in the 1950s and 1960s and, when I was recently in Ireland, it still seemed to be lingering in some of the more obscure and remote sites in the ownership of that country’s Office of Public Works. Even the little green sheds survive.
Visitor centres today are functionally complex buildings, combining information and exhibition space, large cafés, shops and more. They have to be furiously busy, generating income for the site, while remaining physically self-effacing beside, or apart from, the site in question — be it Stowe, Stonehenge or the Giant’s Causeway.
The Giant’s Causeway visitor centre attempts a measure of invisibility
At the latter, a World Heritage site, the National Trust’s new centre crouches low, and attempts a measure of invisibility, such is the extreme sensitivity of the landscape. This kind of built tautology works to great effect and the resulting structure lies on the landscape effortlessly. From a distance, approaching along the lanes, the spare form, strong materials and dominant geometry of the building offer tough echoes of the geology that has formed the setting, the extraordinary forms of columnar basalt. Borrowing its roofs from the fields around it, the building virtually dissolves, while the car park slips entirely out of sight. So skilful and elegant is Heneghan Peng’s insertion that by the time you reach the coastline and the Giant’s Causeway itself, the landscape is unencumbered, leaving the strange rock and vivid elements to do the rest.
The visualisations of the new facilities proposed for the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, also a World Heritage site, had suggested that the rebuilt ship would float upon a transparent structure, the glazing and detailing so subtle and refined that it would effortlessly evoke water. In reality, the Cutty Sark appears riding above a kind of chunky glass lifebelt, more shopping arcade than exquisite viewing chamber. This year’s easy winner of the Carbuncle Cup is mournful proof that though it can help, brandishing World Heritage site status is no guarantor of quality.