Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre

Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre

The Sutton Hoo estate – the site of two Anglo-Saxon burial grounds – was donated in 1998 to the National Trust, who commissioned architect van Heyningen and Haward to design a new visitor centre.

Sutton Hoo by Van Heyningen
Sutton Hoo by Van Heyningen
Sutton Hoo by Van Heyningen
Sutton Hoo by Van Heyningen

In 1939 the estate of Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, was the site of a momentous archaeological discovery, the burial ground of the 7th century kings of East Anglia. Huge timber ships, laden with precious objects, were buried with the kings. The Sutton Hoo estate – a substantial house built in 1910 in grounds of 99 hectares, including the gravefield site – was donated in 1998 to the National Trust, who commissioned architect van Heyningen and Haward to design a new visitor centre.

The practice has taken a modest, unintrusive approach to the design of visitor facilities. Reception and exhibition spaces are split into two barn-like timber buildings, set among trees at one corner of the site and close to the main car park. Their gable end entrances, each with an overhanging roof to give shelter in bad weather, face each other to create an informal courtyard.

Both are designed to be, in the words of the architect, “non-assertive and appear recessive in the landscape.” The reception building is filled with light flooding in through glazed walls and a lantern, its effect enhanced by translucent white-stained timber boarding on walls and ceiling. It contains information and ticketing desk, a shop, WCs, a generous lobby space for people to gather and orientate themselves, and a kitchen and restaurant with an outside terrace which gives dramatic views over the site and down the valley to Woodbridge.

The exhibition building houses a spacious hall which rises to the apex of the roof; it contains a reconstruction of a ship burial – the mid-section of the ship is set in a basement with a viewing platform at ground floor level, re-creating the original discovery. Opening off the hall is an audio-visual theatre and a Treasury room where some of the original finds are on display.

The frame structure, exterior and interior cladding of the two buildings are all of Douglas fir. The exterior is clad with horizontal Douglas fir ship-lap boarding. It is a timber aesthetic partly related to the Suffolk vernacular of black weather-boarded barns, (though the centre’s buildings are stained dark grey as black, it was thought, would be too strong) and partly reflecting the timber construction of the Anglo-Saxon ships.

The use of timber also accords with the ethos of the client, the National Trust, to commission buildings which are sympathetic to their surroundings and to use materials which are from local and sustainable resources. The Douglas fir used for frame and cladding was sourced in the Lake District and was treated with environmentally non-polluting preservative based on boron. The roofs are covered in metallic grey zinc sheet which matches the grey boarding of the walls. The frame structure, exterior and interior cladding of the two buildings are all of Douglas fir. The exterior is clad with horizontal Douglas fir ship-lap boarding.

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