Simpson & Brown Architects has designed a new visitor centre for English Heritage, using timber to create its principal space, a light-filled arcaded hall of tall glulam arches, reflecting the characteristic columns and pointed arches of the Gothic ruins.
The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, on the North York Moors, are the remains of one of the great medieval abbeys of England, founded in 1132 and a powerful and spiritually renowned centre of Cistercian monasticism, with 650 monks living there in the 1160s under its famous abbot, Aeldred. In 1538 it was shut down as part of the Suppression of the Monasteries that took place under Henry VIII. The abbey became an ironworks, falling into disrepair until, in the 1770s, its picturesque ruins began to be appreciated by artists and visitors. Since coming under the protection of English Heritage, the abbey has been carefully repaired to prevent collapse, with a small museum alongside to house the collection of antiquities associated with the site. Simpson & Brown Architects has designed a new visitor centre for English Heritage, using timber to create its principal space, a light-filled arcaded hall of tall glulam arches, reflecting the characteristic columns and pointed arches of the Gothic ruins. The hall gives visitors a foretaste of the Abbey’s history, acts as a seating area to the café and offers a view through its glazed eastern gable wall to the abbey ruins beyond. The building stands alongside the car park in a grove of magnificent mature trees. It partially preplaces an older, smaller and somewhat out-dated visitor centre, with the purpose of creating a new and more attractive venue for visitors, with an extended and upgraded café and shop which would encourage them to go beyond and venture into the museum and the ruins themselves. The museum has been upgraded to meet modern curatorial standards and to improve staff facilities. The site was small and severely restricted by the need to maintain car parking space and to preserve the large mature trees which surround it; as a result it was decided to incorporate part of the older visitor centre into the new one – a decision which had a positive effect on the budget. The unobtrusive remnants of the original building, timber clad and with a low pitched roof, stand at each side of the new arcaded hall and house the original café/kitchen and the shop. As the citation for its RIBA Award wrote: A sense of rhythm, order, and simplicity of structure defines the formal arrangement of the new architectural order. The materials and detail demonstrate a quality of the craftsmanship and convey a sense of humility and calmness as if not to disturb the monastic rituals of the abbey behind. The new visitor centre is an amalgam of new and original buildings co-ordinated into a seamless whole and unified by a simple palette of timber and glass. The glazed gable wall of the new hall faces the car park, its arched glulam structure enclosing an ancient carved stone urn on a plinth, an invitation to visitors to discover more. The main entrance is set at the side of the hall, indicated by a timber wall with a carved sign and sheltered by an overhanging cross-laminated timber (CLT) roof canopy supported on glulam columns and partly enclosed with a slatted timber screen. Along the wall is a timber bench where visitors can sit as they rest or wait for friends. Once into the new hall, visitors can learn about its history and antiquities from illustrated panels set between the exposed columns of the glulam arches. They can pass into the shop or directly into the spacious cafe seating area beyond, to sit and eat while looking at the view; at one side the columns of two of the glulam arches have been removed to accommodate a glass screen which slides back, on fine days, giving access to a terrace for open-air eating, sheltered by the deeply overhanging roof above it. The glulam arches are set in varying widths apart and towards the east end of the hall where the view is closest to the abbey, they are splayed to reveal what had previously been obscured views of the abbey ruins. The arches are designed to appear unconnected and free-standing, with full-height glazing set between them. In other parts of the hall, slot windows set in vertical cross-laminated (CLT) panels give views of the terrace and control direct sunlight.