Eric Parry’s Cedars Hall for Wells Cathedral School is a solo performance that harmonises with its medieval surroundings
There is a famous photograph of the sun illuminating the worn limestone steps of Wells Cathedral’s chapter house. On the similarly worn roots of a cedar tree, within the sound of the cathedral bells, a new home for music in the city was conceived: Cedars Hall.
This Somerset city has music writ through it with the rehearsal and performance spaces of Wells Cathedral School – one of just five specialist music schools in the country – dotted around the cathedral precincts. Foremost among them is the gothic cathedral itself; alongside it the medieval Quilter Hall where smaller concerts take place. Eric Parry Architects’ Cedars Hall joins these ancient buildings, giving the school a music centre with a tunable space that is fully geared up for recording and invisibly kitted out with power and data cables, which cannot be inserted into the listed stone structures. And, despite a difficult gestation, Cedars Hall’s 400-seat concert space shares a robust materiality and sense of being grounded in its location.
I walk to the cedar tree with architect Tim Lynch, kicking silvery trails in the deeply dewed cricket pitch. Above us are the Mendip hills but turning towards the city it is the cathedral you see rising behind the school buildings, the historic Liberty wall thrown loosely around it. The concert hall sits on this falling ground. Despite its inevitable bulk, with a minimum 10m internal height required for acoustics, the building secured planning without going to committee. Lynch puts it down to the school’s work with its neighbours and strategic planning by advisor architect Colin Stansfield Smith who had identified this site before the competition.
From outside there is the promise of an inhabitable space, not just an imposition of a building
But much of the success of the building is the way Parrys has handled the ground plane, digging the volume of the hall into the slope (a little less deeply than originally planned thanks to old mining chemicals contaminating the soil). Unlike most concert halls this has windows, so the meeting of the ground level outside and the gallery level inside has some significance, imparting a sense of the building in the landscape. And from outside there is the promise of an inhabitable space, not just an imposition of a building. Music practice rooms have been pulled out of the main volume with the intention that they are embedded in the Liberty wall, they are conceived as stone continuum. This is hard to read from the cricket field as the sections of wall not obscured by a tall yew hedge have yet to weather into a comfortable backdrop – the new mortar is the same composition as the historic mix so is currently lighter. However, from the playground to the junior school on the north, where the spoil is moulded into a stepped mound to the timber-clad rear of the hall, the building becomes a more convincingly part of the Liberty wall.
Externally, the trunks of weathering steel forming the vertical panels draw on the verticals in the landscape. The height, proportions (they are 5.5m high by 2m wide) and simplicity of them in concert with the glass panels is calm and spacious. You can imagine this steady building acting as a foil to the animation of the pupil orchestras inside. Despite the elegance of the facade, Parrys was assiduous in ensuring details on corners were styled to give a sense of a monolithic material rather than thin sheets, and the red MDF and ply panels bring the intensity and rhythm inside. Many of the panels are affectionately called ‘sharks fins’ as they are moved to tune the hall. Where circulation and tech spaces overlook the hall the clear glass is replaced with black without a break in the rhythm.
The potential problem of landscape views distracting musical concentration is offset by the way the hall’s volume is gathered in by the gallery around the edges – so most of the audience and performers sit cossetted below ground level in a smaller space. The belly of the CNC-cut beech LVL acoustic grid and the inset clerestory also add a sense of enclosure.
The fundamental idea of a high acoustically performing building with windows – especially at this scale of project – sowed the seeds for some of its struggles. Acoustic insulation of 65dB was the original aspiration – higher than any competitor music schools – but required a specialist contractor from the continent to take on the envelope. It would have been a large subcontract for a relatively small building, but by bundling projects together, including a Parry-designed maintenance building and cricket pavilion, the school initially attracted large contractors. However, it gradually became clear that the chosen contractor didn’t want to take on the risks. Along the way there was much value engineering, a change to the structure – and after serious consideration whether an extra 18dD isolation was worth an extra million pounds it was decided that no, it was not, when the worst sounds were sportsfield cheering and the occasional jet. So no huge subcontract and the contract for Cedars Hall alone was relet to a smaller contractor, eventually costing £6.2 million, just over £4200/m².
I visited at the dog end of the half term holidays with the builders in for snagging and a Marie Celeste of crushed plastic cups and tangles of chairs in the rehearsal rooms. These rooms, despite the innovation of observation rooms alongside, now being appropriated for other musical purposes, are obviously the back of house school territory. And empty, the foyer has the same sense. However, there was evidence of it in active use as a temporary gallery, if not as a brass rehearsal space, and it has the bones of a welcoming double height gathering space. But it is undoubtedly the concert hall and its place in the landscape that steal the show.
Contract value £6.2m
Client Wells Cathedral School
Structural & civil engineer Momentum Consulting Engineers
M&E engineer Buro Happold
Acoustic consultant Gillieron Scott Acoustic Design
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Project manager QSPM
Main contractor Shaylor Group