Meeting architectural aspirations

Earlier this month The Hold in Ipswich received planning permission despite a host of objections. Here Pippa Jacob explains why the building design did not meet its aspirational mark.

Just a week ago plans to build a new records office and heritage centre on the University of Suffolk campus near Ipswich Waterfront were formally approved by Suffolk County Council.

It came as a blow to a number of people who complained that the £20m building’s design was simply “a mundane series of boxes.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so they say.

But creating something visually pleasing is about so much more than bricks and mortar.

Whenever we build something, we need to be thinking about context – how it sits in its surroundings, who will be using the space and how, its scale, its functions, its durability.

The objections

Earlier this month I was involved in a BBC debate about this particular project – The Hold.

I was invited to take part in the discussion in my role as secretary of RIBA Suffolk but my voice has been echoed by a number of people in my profession from across East Anglia and beyond.

In short, we don’t feel like the project is ambitious enough for a landmark building on the waterfront in Ipswich and there has been a real missed opportunity to create something really spectacular to help put Ipswich on the map.

It’s incredibly exciting when a council and a university decides to invest in something of this scale but the result is not the kind of building we expect to unite the town, university and historic waterfront along with housing the County’s record offices.

Making a dream a reality

There are certain key elements needed to bring a project of this scale to fruition – many of which were lacking in the proposal.

They include:

  1. Client relationship. Good architecture is dependent on a strong client-architect relationship. You need to have open and frank discussions and a clear chain of command. Any project with too many cooks means the meal is more likely to spoil.
  2. Understanding your location. With any project, understanding the location and setting is vital to realise its full potential.
  3. Giving it context. When introducing a new building to an established area, you must consider its relationship to its neighbours – especially if the new block is to be modern and its neighbours are listed or in a conservation area.
  4. Don’t skimp on materials. The fabric of a building is what will give it a wow factor. Choosing appropriate materials allows the design to sing.
  5. Value for money. Every client has a budget. A good architect can work with that budget to create the very best design for the money available. Pausing to take stock, review and revise plans as they go along makes for the best design merit and cost-efficient build.

A building for the future

The Hold will deliver a new home for the bulk of Suffolk’s unique archival collections, as well as public facilities and teaching spaces for the University of Suffolk.

It is expected to attract 19,500 visitors per year, seeking to research local history, to find out about their families, or to take part in events and activities, and is scheduled to open by the end of 2019.

The total cost of the project is expected to be more than £20 million made possible with grants and lottery funding.

Ipswich Society chairman John Norman, writing in the society’s newsletter, said he was concerned about its role in the future however.

He wrote: “What is proposed is a mundane series of boxes, an anywhere building without presence, panache or style.

“With acres of flat roof, miles of featureless walls, on a site that has no relationship with its surroundings – not even a masterplan to explain how it will eventually contribute to the wider campus.”

But this month the council’s planners disagreed.

They said: “The design meets the brief and would successfully meld a range of functions within an open, accessible, legible and visually stimulating interior. The design team has demonstrated a regard for sustainability in both construction and use of the building.”

It will be interesting to see how the project develops.

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