Rural idyll

A perfect mix of rebuild, refurbishment and reconstruction captures the country village spirit of the artists and artisans whose work Ditchling Museum celebrates

A new black zinc-clad building nestles next to the existing refurbished parts of the museum complex.
A new black zinc-clad building nestles next to the existing refurbished parts of the museum complex.
Inside the new building, the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ masks a prosaic toilet block.
Inside the new building, the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ masks a prosaic toilet block.

This project is exemplary for all kinds of reasons. It is ‘vernacular’ architecture in the best sense, meaning it draws fruitfully from its context without slavishly copying it. It is just a little quirky, which suits the museum’s subject matter of the disparate, rural-utopian artists, designers, weavers and book-printers who set up shop in this Sussex village over a century ago, Eric Gill and Edward Johnston among them. It blends new-build, refurbishment and forensic reconstruction in highly skilled fashion. The hand of the architect runs right through it, since he was exhibition designer as well. And it has all been achieved on a very tight budget for an environmentally-­controlled, secure museum of a complex nature: £1,900/m2, £1.1m total build cost.

Architect Adam Richards, whose New Mission Hall house, also in Sussex, was a Manser Medal contender two years ago (RIBA Journal, October 2011) knows the area well, dividing his time between Sussex and London. He has worked for architects including Niall McLaughlin, Richard MacCormac and O’Donnell & Tuomey, which suggests a thorough grounding in the craft-based aspects of design and building. 

It’s easy to get Sussex vernacular off-kilter: the material ingredients of tile-hung walls and timber weatherboarding, combinations of flint and brick (sometimes glazed) and iron-streaked sandstone, have to be adroitly handled while over-gabling and exaggerated bargeboards are best avoided. Most new ‘executive homes’ developments in the county act as a warning. In Ditchling, which lies in the South Downs National Park, another contextual pointer was taken into consideration. The village green where the museum now stands was – in the period it concerns itself with – a working farmyard. A 1940 painting by Charles Knight, ‘The Pond, Ditchling’ shows the low farm buildings and pens, behind them the black-glazed walls of a house clad in the ‘mathematical tiles’ of the area masquerading as bricks, and beyond them the South Downs. This was a village with both fine houses and working buildings.

Agricultural echoes: Richards makes a farmyard memory out of his composition.
Agricultural echoes: Richards makes a farmyard memory out of his composition.
How it all fits together, piece by piece, absorbing a sharp level change from entrance to gallery level.
How it all fits together, piece by piece, absorbing a sharp level change from entrance to gallery level.

 

IN NUMBERS

linked buildings in the complex

£1.1m - construction cost

£1,900/m2 - budget

1907 - year Eric Gill moved to Ditchling

 

What you can’t see in this painting – because they are hidden by the big old trees that fringe the pond – are the Victorian school buildings that, on falling vacant, first housed the museum when it was founded in 1985 and which, now refurbished, still contain the main displays. What you can see in the painting, however, peeping out from behind the trees, is the gabled end of the 18th century, timber-framed over brick and flint, ‘cart lodge’ part of the farm. This building became the key to Richards’ plans. The museum had been entered via a narrow lane through the church graveyard from behind (the pond blocking access in front). But the cart lodge, if it could be linked to the school buildings, could make a new entrance from the side – through what was the farmyard but is now the village green.

This proved to be possible, by taking out a lease on the cart lodge. Two difficulties then arose. First, the old building, never intended for habitation, had to be completely taken apart and reassembled, properly and invisibly insulated and serviced, to function as a very tightly planned combined foyer, shop and cafe for the museum. The earth floor was replaced with a Limecrete slab topped with slate flags: allowing the building to breathe (in this case through the joints of the flags) was a key consideration. The cart openings, like garage doors, become slightly projecting painted timber frames offering some shelter: both glazed, one contains the entrance door. Secondly, a sharp difference in level between the lodge and school buildings had to be overcome. So Richards did not make his entrance to the museum proper on the level. He found himself, perversely in these access-conscious times, building a flight of steps.

It’s at times like these that architectural ingenuity comes to the fore. Between the cart lodge and school buildings, Richards introduces two new structures. The first is merely a link containing the steps and, given equal prominence, a platform lift. This tiny building, including  window looking back to the nearby village church on one side and a light-slot on the other set on the higher datum line,  is otherwise clad entirely in red handmade Sussex Keymer tiles. The gutter sits beneath it rather than at eaves level, so it is effectively all roof. Richards has a rationale about Gill and his Roman Catholic colleagues in the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic designing but never building a giant hilltop Calvary for the area: he sees the ascent from foyer to museum as an echo of that. Fanciful, I’d suggest.

 

Inside the reused cart lodge: café, shop and ticketing.
Inside the reused cart lodge: café, shop and ticketing.
The staircase link building has a plain CLT interior.
The staircase link building has a plain CLT interior.
Gill’s printing press stands like an altar at the end of a basilica-like room. Air handling is concealed above the lower gallery niches.
Gill’s printing press stands like an altar at the end of a basilica-like room. Air handling is concealed above the lower gallery niches.

Having passed through this link, you arrive at the bigger new building, made of cross-laminated timber (CLT) externally clad in anthracite zinc. This black building, a kind of fantasia on a Sussex barn, is slightly cranked along its tapering length to align at the rear with the cart lodge and to provide a wide enough service access. Its cladding is treated quite playfully. The zig-zag decorative cut given to the material permits ventilation but also, suggests Richards, recalls the canopies of rural railway stations – these artists and artisans were forever catching the train to and from their clients in London.

 
You might expect this new black building to contain a new gallery, but it does so only up to a point. It has three functions – secure museum storage at the rear, toilets (expressed as a separate painted-timber hut projecting into the space) in the middle, and backing on to that a ‘wünderkammer’ or glass-fronted cabinet of curiosities drawn from the collection. Its shelves are made from CLT offcuts, as are shelves in the shop and a hovering screen between stairs and lift: economic use of the building material. This tall cabinet successfully conceals the prosaic toilet block and faces straight out through a full-height window onto the terrace in front, proffering the collection to the public. So the nose of the black building is both circulation space and an introductory anteroom to the main event.

 

The ecclesiastical theme continues in the main displays, with a shape derived from the Guild’s former chapel nearby.  Below middle The exposed CLT interior and polished concrete floor lead to a point of contemplation of the verdant setting.  Below right The assemblage of forms, textures and colours works well from the rear and avoids over-fussiness.
The ecclesiastical theme continues in the main displays, with a shape derived from the Guild’s former chapel nearby. Below middle The exposed CLT interior and polished concrete floor lead to a point of contemplation of the verdant setting. Below right The assemblage of forms, textures and colours works well from the rear and avoids over-fussiness.
The exposed CLT interior and polished concrete floor lead to a point of contemplation of the verdant setting.
The exposed CLT interior and polished concrete floor lead to a point of contemplation of the verdant setting.

You might expect this new black building to contain a new gallery, but it does so only up to a point. It has three functions – secure museum storage at the rear, toilets (expressed as a separate painted-timber hut projecting into the space) in the middle, and backing on to that a ‘wünderkammer’ or glass-fronted cabinet of curiosities drawn from the collection. Its shelves are made from CLT offcuts, as are shelves in the shop and a hovering screen between stairs and lift: economic use of the building material. This tall cabinet successfully conceals the prosaic toilet block and faces straight out through a full-height window onto the terrace in front, proffering the collection to the public. So the nose of the black building is both circulation space and an introductory anteroom to the main event.

The old school rooms are now environmentally conditioned; the displays, including cases with some sophisticated micro-lighting, are designed by Richards’ practice – project architect here is Sam Dawkins. Graphics throughout the museum are by Phil Baines, professor of typography at Central St Martins. The ingenuity here, in these painted matchboard-lined rooms, is the near-invisible upgrading of display conditions, very different from the previous ramshackle arrangement. The main gallery is dominated by the works of Gill and his cohorts, a large room divider being based on a section of his guild’s chapel at nearby Ditchling Common. But an ‘axis of making’  takes you back past other crafts such as the weaving of Ethel Mairet. 

The ecclesiastical theme continues in the Print Gallery, where Richards had to reconcile air-handling equipment for the whole museum with displays. His response was a basilica-like space in which the eye is drawn towards Gill’s printing press (still in use), positioned like an altar and bathed in daylight. The tall narrow arched ceiling contains the aircon equipment above lower-ceilinged display booths.

Elsewhere there is a nice simple, almost Shakerish, reading room and the inevitable education room equipped with sinks for schoolchildren, without which no museum can get grants these days. For once this is entirely appropriate: craft skills, printing and weaving are exactly what should be taught here, and in a former schoolhouse at that.

There are other material touches. A 1980s gable end to the print gallery has been re-clad in timber weatherboarding. A dark glazed brick plinth ties the various elements together. Some slate roofs have been patched rather than replaced, such were the budget constraints. All in all it is a very convincing assemblage, a cultural farmyard that avoids tweeness and might be described as the best kind of pastiche. Inside, this is a local museum with nationally-important work, finished to national standards of curation and display. This is an important building, not only in the development of Richards’ practice, but for English – and it is supremely English – rural architecture.

The assemblage of forms, textures and colours works well from the rear and avoids over-fussiness.
The assemblage of forms, textures and colours works well from the rear and avoids over-fussiness.

Credits
Architect and exhibition consultant Adam Richards Architects
Client Ditchling Museum
Contractors Westridge Construction
Structural engineer Price & Myers
Services consultant Bailey Gomm
Lighting designer LightPlan

Suppliers
Cross laminated timber KLH UK
Zinc cladding VM Zinc
Windows and curtain walling Glass Solutions Saint Gobain
Sinks Twyford Bathrooms
Tiles Keymer Tiles
Slate flooring tiles The Natural Slate Company
Ironmongery IZE