6 October 2010

WISE Building Review, Centre for Alternative Technology



We made our vertical ascent to the CAT site via the trusty water powered cable car. What an arrival experience - gently rising up through the trees from the valley below, with the views gradually opening up to reveal the mountains of Snowdonia beyond.

We were lucky enough to be with Cindy Harris of DCfW who acted as our guide, and who also designed and indeed built many of the buildings on the CAT site. A highlight was the "new" shop building, where the rammed earth walls are particularly beautiful artifacts, albeit with a practical purpose (they provide thermal mass within the highly insulated timber frame structure).

After a lovely lunch in the canteen space of the new WISE building, we were treated to a guided tour by Pat Borer, one of the architects of the new building.

It is a fantastic place, with innovation and clear dedication in the detailing, but also evident care and consideration in the handling of the massing, materials and quality of light.

The circular lecture theatre is a monumental space, suitably defined by a huge circular rammed earth structure. The mechanical devices such as the full-height sliding curved wooden screen (that slides away to reveal a stunning view) and the rotating black-out for the oculus (see video below) are playful elements that contrast nicely with the more formal architectural devices.

The Amazing Rotating Oculus from Toby Adam on Vimeo.

The building makes constant references to external space, be it the entrance square, the central courtyard, the rear walkway hard up against the quarry edge or the roof-top garden. Each has a distinct character and sense of place. For me, the central courtyard with the water gently dripping from the rainwater spouts into the ponds below was the favourite, evoking a strong sense of the former quarry that has been transformed over nearly 40 years since CAT was formed.

Among the simple pleasures such as the restrained palette of materials and attention to detail , it is the straightforward care and commitment of the architects that shines through. Especially when you get an insight into the terrible contractual issues that dogged the construction phases - not, it must be added, due to any fault or misjudgement of the procurement process on the client side.

This is an exemplar building for CAT, but also for us all. It carries its sustainable credentials lightly, without preaching or any didactic messages obscuring the obvious good design.

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