Cambridge Fens Visitor Centre
Ideas competitions provide an opportunity as a practice to review our core principals and to try out ideas that we would not otherwise have an opportunity to develop. The RIBA Cambridge Fens competition, for the design of a nature reserve visitor centre, allowed us to develop the connection the practice has with artists. We already have a strong programme of artist exhibitions through our work with The Foundry Gallery.
This competition was an opportunity to develop the relationship further by partnering with an artist on the conception of an idea for a building, or buildings, rooted in landscape. For this project we invited in sculptor, Olivia Bax. The artist had previously exhibited work in The Foundry Gallery and for many years had assisted the eminent artist Anthony Caro. Bax was at the time working on ideas of plasticity and texture in her work and the competition provided a chance to explore these ideas through physical works.
The Great Fens Project links together two natural habitats, Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen, north of Cambridge. These last vestiges of traditional fen where under threat from agricultural change and development. The larger plan involves transforming more than 3,000ha of largely arable land into a mosaic of habitat: open water, lakes, ponds and ditches; reed-bed; fen, bog and marsh; wet grassland ; dry grassland; woodland and scrub. Biodiversity will be protected and encouraged, struggling species will repopulate the new landscape. The Great Fens are intended to be accessible to the wider public and so the competition brief looked at how visitors could be provided for, given orientation and knowledge about the fens.
The fundamental response of the artist was to the landscape. The pattern of lines and the great vistas available on the flat plan of the fens inspired a very textural response. Keeping in mind the impact that large numbers of visitors can have on a vulnerable habitat the concept was intended to have a strong connection with the landscape and challenge the conventional notions of what a visitor centre needed.
The landscape is primarily experienced though the act of walking and observing. This is in part directed by the placement of sculptural forms and the new interventions into the wetland landscape itself. The landscape intentionally disperses groups and encourages individuals to explore to seek unique encounters with the wildlife. At the end of the journey, these unique experiences on site can be shared through storytelling and allow a personal reading of the landscape. Hearing other visitors’ tales will be reason for a return visit.