I had planned to write about the Terris Novalis sculpture as my next feature for the website … but my recent visit to County Durham coincided exactly with Biblical flooding, so I don’t have any photos of that wonderful, strange pair of multi-legged instruments which appear to wander over the former site of a huge steelworks, like creatures from a medieval bestiary.  Maybe next time.

Instead, I crossed the Pennines on the A66, stopping briefly at a glum and windswept service station, then stopping again to mourn the ruins of Scotland’s brick industry, before reaching home.  Back to work: last week, while I was developing a concept for a site on the west coast which needs to sit happily in a mature landscape, I was reminded about the work of Aldington, Craig & Collinge.  I thought it would be worth unearthing some photos of one of their more recent buildings, as their architecture is a model of how to approach such things.

Aldington, Craig & Collinge are best known to the generation of architects who came before me, the men and women who taught my peers at architecture school.  Peter Aldington’s house received huge publicity in the 1960’s, thanks to its close integration of people, building, and landscape: Richard Einzig’s crisp photos captured its buttery-coloured timberwork and firmly lodged in architects’ minds.  However, by the 1990’s, the practice had fallen from view, until they received the commission for a new library and archive in Ludlow, a market town in the Marches close to the English-Welsh border.

Dubbed “Romantic Pragmatism” by the Architectural Review, AC&C’s approach uses traditional materials to connect buildings to their local context, but with complex programmes allied to a sophisticated sense of composition, these buildings are also inherently part of the late 20th century.  Since the practice, now led by Collinge alone, was amongst the most sensitive of the late Modern era, comparable to Cullinan or MacCormac, it seems Ludlow commissioned the right kind of practice to create a carefully-considered building.

The library sits on an elevated site overlooking the town, and Collinge’s treatment of the roofscape responds subtly, perhaps, to the outline of Ludlow Castle.  You could see the profile of the stepped roofs as a response to the broken-down curtain wall of the castle, as well as a device to pull light into the depth of the library’s plan; the stair towers of the resource centre serve to signal the entrance of the building, whilst echoing the turrets of the castle.

If this is contextualism, it’s more sophisticated than the mock-Tudor timber and brickwork which laypeople are familiar with.  In fact, from some angles the library achieves a faceted geometry similar to Stirling & Gowan’s “Red” period.  However, the tones of the brickwork betrays the practice’s continuing interest in texture and richness, rather than Stirling’s smooth surfaces: Aldington’s own house, “Turn End”, used overburnt bricks for their colourful variations and warped shapes.

In terms of architectural context, it’s interesting to see that Ludlow has one of the highest (architectural) quality supermarkets in Britain – the flowing curved roofs of the Tesco just down the hill from the library, designed by one of Aldington’s contemporaries, Richard MacCormac’s practice.  It shares the red brick walls, asymmetry, and well-modulated glazing of the library, along with a strong roof form.  These characteristics, perhaps, are key to understanding the notion of context in Ludlow, rather than trying to shoehorn a 21st Century programme behind a grim photocopy of an 18th Century facade, which is what some people intend when they think of historical context.

The new building was completed in 2003 and received good reviews in the architectural press: once a few nits had been picked about the over-articulation of columns, it was acknowledged that Ludlow could propel AC&C back into our collective consciousness.  Although I haven’t seen reviews of any of their buildings since then, Alan Powers wrote a book about the practice three years ago which praised their well resolved, site specific and overwhelmingly human-centred work.

Happily, the library is a success as a piece of townscape and as a piece of humanist architecture: naturally lit, with internal spaces on a human scale, and with a socially cohesive purpose.  However, the one difficulty in Ludlow is that its social context includes gift shops, tea rooms and antique dealers: rural Shropshire is the natural home of the Barbour and Labrador Set.  Indeed, Jonathan Glancey noted that Ludlow is “a difficult town in which to build anything new without falling foul of pretty much everyone who lives there”. 

Bearing that in mind, the Ludlow Civic Society reckoned that - “visitors should once again avoid lingering over the prospect of Ludlow’s ill-conceived library, designed by modernist architects, Aldington Craig and Collinge and completed in 2003, despite the vigorous objections of the majority of the inhabitants of the town, including the Ludlow Civic Society, on grounds of both inappropriate style and sheer scale within the context of the town.  As so often happens when money is to be made, the aesthetic views and preferences of the people were overruled.”

Modernist, in their cultural context, is a filthy imprecation.  However, the final sentence raises an interesting issue, which Peter Aldington himself grappled with during his time in practice.  Are the Planners there to apply a rationale to the way towns are zoned, and to protect historic buildings … or should they wield a pen and design the building for you?  Similarly, should pressure groups and vested interests dictate how a building is massed up, what it’s made of, indeed what it looks like, or even whether it’s built at all?

Architects, after all, study for seven years and work for many more to gain experience  before they’re let loose to design a building on their own.  I imagine that the complexity of the briefing process for a building like the Ludlow Library would be a revelation to the Ludlow Civic Society, and similarly I wonder how much they understand about the front-loading of an architect’s work on a civic scheme like this.  In order to get it to the point where there is a proposal to discuss, the architects will have undertaken weeks of research on the building’s functions and how they inter-relate, will have interviewed various client representatives, drawn up functional diagrams and probably activity data sheets, too.

All of that work is hidden to laypeople, although Alan Powers’ book makes it clear how thorough the practice’s briefing method is: but the care with which the outer expression of the building was conceived is apparent.  That makes it all the more surprising that there is virtually nothing on the internet about this building … or perhaps not so surprising, when you consider that the big-name design websites ignore the subtle and nuanced work of practices like Collinge’s to the same extent as small town civic societies misunderstand what the term “context” actually means.

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