New café by Chris Dyson Architects pays more than a nod to the famous sculptures
With its cedar shingles and steeply pitched roof, there’s a touch of Hansel and Gretel about the new café at Crystal Palace Park in south east London designed by Chris Dyson Architects.
And while there’s no wicked witch, there are certainly plenty of other strange creatures in the form of the park’s famous dinosaurs lurking in the foliage nearby.
Created in the 1850s, the grade 1 listed sculptures were the first attempts to interpret the then-emerging discoveries of dinosaur remains. They are part of the design story of the café – the choice of shingles is a reference to dinosaur skin, and they benefit from the extra revenue generated by the new building’s extended programme.
The previous poorly built facility was deeply uninviting and did little to signpost its existence. Its replacement forms part of a wider programme of improvements by Bromley Council to the 81ha park, which was created in 1852-55 by Sir Joseph Paxton to house the former Great Exhibition building when it was relocated from Hyde Park. CDA was part of a team lead by landscape design practice KLA appointed in 2014 to explore the feasibility of nine improvements to the landscape and architecture. These were informed by a £67 million masterplan drawn up in 2007.
After establishing that the poor structure of the 1960s café made it unsuitable for retrofit, the decision was made to go for a new build on the same site near the ‘tidal’ lakes close to Penge Gate. As well as providing refreshments, the aim was to include an 80-seater, multi-use community room with its own kitchen that could be accessed separately and generate additional income. The 468m2 building was to provide a tall, wayfinding element to help orientation within the park. It also needed to navigate the 4m level change between the site and the adjacent lakeside path. And all within a £1.4 million budget.
The solution was to stack the community room above the 60-seater café, with dual access. At a higher level, a walkway leads from the lake path to the café’s upper terrace and into the building. At the lower level, the main entrance on the west elevation gives access to the café, with a lift and stairs between the two levels.
CDA’s design avoids a pastiche of the Victorian structures in and around the park and creates a contemporary, bold building with an appealingly familiar domestic form thanks to its large brick chimney and striking pitched roof.
The chimney is usable but functions primarily as a landmark. It is balanced by the 45° pitched roof, which at 6.2m tall above 6.2m high walls rises high enough to give the building a strong presence even when viewed from the upper level of the lake. But it’s the shingles covering both walls and roof that immediately engage – a pleasing reference to the scaly skin of the dinosaur sculptures.
‘We looked at ceramic and metal options. Given the setting and amount of foliage, we felt that timber was the most sympathetic and would bed in the best,’ says CDA partner Matthew Witts.
These are of Canadian Red Western Cedar, cut 12.5cm wide with rounded rather than (cheaper) square edges, and installed in less than a week. In total, about 25,000 were installed. Already, they are weathering to grey as intended.
With costs under pressure, the architect did well to hold onto the key elements of chimney, steep pitched roof and rounded shingles. The masonry chimney survived in part due to its role as a bracing element and the fact that a less steeply pitched roof would mean only negligible savings.
‘We fought quite hard for the chimney,’ says Witts. ‘If we’d had square-edged shingles and no chimney, it would have been a very different building.’
One casualty couldn’t be avoided. Originally the proposal was for an engineered timber frame, but this was replaced because it was more expensive than expected when tendered – contractors were more comfortable with a cheaper, steel frame. While this is a pity, particularly in the upper room, users there are more likely to be looking at the panoramic views over the lake and the rest of the park rather than up. The steel frame is left exposed.
‘We were thinking in terms of industrial buildings and factories – everything had to do a job. You couldn’t decorate it,’ says Witts.
Externally, the pitched form is accentuated by the dark roof and black engineering brick of the chimney. Both give the café added presence, and help with the aim of reinforcing the main central axis that runs past the café and into the park.
The investment certainly appears to be paying off. Visiting it on a wet morning in late November, the café was bustling with activity with baby buggies and customers on laptops a-plenty. It generates 80% more rent than the previous café and is surely a major contributory factor to the increased park footfall, estimated at 1.4 million per year up from 1.25 million.
More changes are afoot in the park. The council plans to submit a planning application for an extensive regeneration plan for the park in early 2020 followed by a grant application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Those improvements will hopefully do much to help the park get the most out of its considerable, but somewhat under-utilised assets. Until then, however at least it now has a decent café that not only fulfils the refreshment needs of its two legged park users, but helps to fund the maintenance of its famous dinosaur residents too.
Total contract cost £1.4m
Cost per m2 £2,990
Form of contract JCT Intermediate
Architect Chris Dyson Architects
Landscape Kinnear Landscape Architects
Structural engineer The Morton Partnership
M&E NLG Associates
Building control London Building Control
Main contractor Lengard
Arnold Laver Blue Label Western Red Cedar shingles
Ibstock Himley Ebony Black 0354 bricks
Securiclear Aluminium windows and doors
SDM Fabrication Galvanised steel bridge and handrail
Millboard Terrace & bridge floor finish, Enhanced Grain Limed Oak
Platane First floor engineered timber flooring, oak matt lacquered mixed grade product code 465
UK Flooring Direct Ground floor laminate flooring, Aqualock 8m laminate flooring stable Oak