Hampshire Property Services’ timber and glass cabin on concrete pilotis combines cosy comfort with wide sea views and a secure sense of permanence
When it comes to seaside, Hampshire tends to look enviously at its south coast neighbours. Dorset has the Jurassic Coast, West Sussex has Bognor; Hampshire has very little.
What Hampshire does have is a national park. An ancient patchwork of whorled trunks and common-law heathland, the New Forest is not well known for its beaches. But beaches it does have. And it’s a resource the county is keen to cash in on.
Although the slice of land was fairly matchbox, although the sandy soil was not the easiest to build on, and although the migratory birds had to be left undisturbed, Lepe Country Park was still one of those sites that every architect dreams of.
A paradise for dog-walkers, wind-surfers, pensioners and playschoolers, this one-mile stretch of coast looks out over the Solent towards the double-humped ridge of the Isle of Wight. The previous café had been swamped by storm surges in consecutive years. The need to refurbish prompted a grander gesture from a forward-thinking council that spied the potential bounty of parking charges and cappuccino tips at its new Lookout café.
To get there you drive through villages so quintessentially Norman they feel as if they had been built with an American audience in mind. Swans glide along Beaulieu river. Seals flounder by the coast. But one animal remains the county’s pride and joy.
‘The New Forest Pony is one of the hardiest breeds,’ says Martin Hallum as the car rounds one particularly truculent individual on the way to Lepe Country Park. You can understand the appreciation. Hallum, the project manager at Hampshire Property Services, quickly realised that hardiness would be the order of the day in rebuilding a café on the beach. The elements were not forgiving.
First assailant: the sea. The council’s architects quite literally had to rise to the task, elevating the new café far above the wildest predictions of sea-level rise. Where the previous structure was unfortunately sequestered in a dip (it’s rather dismissively been converted into a toilet block), the Lookout has been elevated on 2.5m concrete pilotis.
‘It gets its feet wet at high storm point,’ says Hallum, proudly patting the front columns. They jut out imperiously like the prow of a ship, so it’s a shame that further back the mix of rectangular and circular pilotis comes out a tad confused.
Concrete has had some stick recently but in this saline marine environment, there’s no real alternative and the cast is expertly done. The space underneath is at that grotto height that encourages every passing toddler to explore. Hallum is pleased to note that the concrete has already been tagged by the scraping of some unmonitored stone, and kayakers are able to store their boats thanks to the ingenious insertion of a cage.
Second adversary: the wind. Bob Wallbridge, the council’s chief architect, is almost proud to note that 150mph beachcombers have been known to batter the building. ‘The wind here is so strong it picks up pebbles from the beach and chucks them at the windows,’ he says.
Since Hampshire Property Services couldn’t exactly call for an ASBO, they have instead pitched the café’s roof defiantly in the project’s big dramatic gesture. Water rolls straight down onto the beach and out to sea. No need for drains. And when things get really tempestuous, the Lookout can batten down the hatches. The window-frames hide aluminium shutters that are always on hand to protect the glass.
Given that the defining constraints are wind and sea, it is no surprise that the Lookout adopts a nautical flavour. Two curving decks sandwich the orthogonal body. Such sharp delineation between hard and soft lines would normally prove a little jarring, but the Siberian larch cladding eases the transition remarkably well. ‘It was originally a Trump-esque orange,’ notes Hallum of the durable wood, ‘but it is silvering down to match the grey of the pines.’
Inside, the pines are welcomed into the space by dint of a clerestory. Junzo Yoshimura’s sylvan summer house was mentioned in precedent studies, but George Nakashima’s studio in Pennsylvania is also worth a mention. Certainly there is something rustically Japanese about the use of a wood.
And like a mountain refuge, the café is dominated by a black stove. It sits unused on a crisp January day, but in a way its disuse does not matter. The stove simply connotes cosiness. A better measure of its success is the way people dutifully gather round to sip coffee before the view.
Ah, the view. As the name implies, the Lookout concentrates everything on its unarguable asset. Sea and swans and ships on the Solent. Debbie, who runs the kitchen, says she started to dabble with photography in her first year ‘up here’. That use of a simple preposition shows the pride the building has instilled in the community. They are ‘up here’ as opposed to down there. Harmonising with the stove, the slim superstructure columns are painted black. They could distract from the view but in fact they frame it, offering every seat an almost private audience with the sea.
‘If you live with it, you are more invested in it,’ says Wallbridge decisively of the Lookout. Hampshire Property Services is an unnecessarily bureaucratic name, but they really are more than architects. They design, manage, refurbish, care. The results are self-evident. Council architecture works. Ironically, other counties have started outsourcing some of their design to Hampshire.
It transpires that those hardy New Forest ponies, despite appearances, are not in fact wild. They roam under the supervision of verderers – a group of community volunteers who quietly oversee the management of the park. The model has worked since the Middle Ages. You get the sense that with Hampshire Property Services, it continues to do so.
£1.7m total contract cost (main works)
355m2 area new build
67m2 area refurbished
Architect and civil, structural and M&E engineer Hampshire County Council Property Services
Interior design, landscape and cost management Hampshire County Council Property Services
Main contractor W Stirland Ltd
Pitched roof VM Zinc
Flat roof Bauder
Siberian larch cladding Russwood
Metal stud partitioning British Gypsum
Acoustic ceilings British Gypsum
Wood burning stove Rais
Roller shutters Charter Global
Hardwood windows and external doors Paling Joiners
Internal doors Enfield Speciality Doors