The landscape of Suffolk has long inspired artistic endeavour. Low-lying with capacious skies, its coastline and gently rolling farmland is famously depicted in the 18th century canvases of Thomas Gainsborough and, half a century later, in those by John Constable. Later still, the noted composer Benjamin Britten, who was born in Suffolk in the early 20th century, chose to stay and work in the town of Aldeburgh, writing, “The county is grand – none in England like it – and I feel I’m infinitely wise in choosing this place…”
The main buildings of the Aldeburgh Music Creative Campus, housed inside a formet Maltings complex
The seemingly desolate, romantic and austere location continues to draw artistic reflection, not least through the cultural hub of the Aldeburgh Music Creative Campus, which encourages this tradition. Most recently, this has been realised through the collection of buildings redeveloped by the London-based practice of Haworth Tompkins. This redevelopment includes various informal and performance spaces, a Dovecote artists’ studio and an artists’ cafe. In fact, without the particularity of the Suffolk landscape, the collection of buildings – first known as the Maltings – that now house the Aldeburgh Music Campus simply wouldn’t have existed. Situated alongside the River Alde, the red brick buildings commissioned by Newson Garrett in the 1800s were originally a self-sufficient industrial hub where Suffolk barley was transformed into malt before being shipped down to the River Thames estuary to London distilleries and breweries. In the century since, and in concert with the vision of the freeholders, English Heritage and the Aldeburgh Music organisation, the Maltings at Snape was converted. Now a Grade II listed complex, it is a significant cultural location, especially celebrated for the two-week long Aldeburgh Festival, held in the summer and established in 1948 by Britten, the singer Peter Pears (Britten’s partner), and writer Eric Crozier.
The steeply pitched roof of a former kiln still visible in the smaller Jerwood Kiln performance studio
While normal in a contemporary context, when Britten and Pears took the opportunity to reappropriate the decaying industrial buildings to form the home of the festival in the sixties, it was a radical idea. Then owned by local farmer, George Gooderham, and since inherited by his son Johnny, the Maltings was a collection of robust buildings, quickly constructed and mostly formed of red brick with slate tiled roofs. The complex included residential workers’ accommodation, a large maltings hall – now the principal 832-seat Snape Maltings Concert Hall completed by Arup Associates in 1967 – and industrial-sized spaces for the collection, germination and drying of barley. Some of he latter now form the five spaces of the Hoffmann Building by Haworth Tompkins, at the centre of the site. The redevelopment includes two smaller performance spaces, rehearsal rooms, a foyer, office space and a social area, as well as the key 340-seat Britten Studio. Further away, a Dovecote artists’ studio and small cafe beyond the main concert hall are later insertions.
Part of the success of all the phases is the rich materiality that the architects have conveyed, which imbues a palette and scale that is sympathetic to the surroundings. Project architect, Paddy Dillon’s recollection of the first site visit conveys his delight in Snape’s built qualities of change over time: “It was a real treasure trove… wandering through buildings… discovering the most incredible textures and quality within them. The kiln buildings particularly… had these fantastic pierced clay tiles sitting in a grid of iron, with roofs lined with boards that had become blackened over time… and the brickwork was a beautiful warm orange-red colour, but very brittle, so the salt winds had scoured it away on certain faces, to create this kind of sculptural soft clay; and in other places it had been painted with black bitumen to protect it [from erosion].”
The only new-build part of the campus, the spartan Britten Studio adopts the architectural language of its surrounding buildings
It is clear that Haworth Tompkins’ deep respect for the natural state of the Maltings – romantically decaying and partially reclaimed by ivy, marsh and lichen that thrive in the sea air – was paramount. Simultaneously, and particularly in the Hoffmann Building, the architects have taken a clean, rational hand to impart a logical sequence to the series of informal yet public spaces. Here, meticulous adjustments have been made to existing floor and ceiling heights, as well as to imaginatively meetstrict acoustic performance ratings – all of which are critical to the successful functioning of the project.
A concrete addition converts a storage barn into a two-storey central foyer
From the outside, the ‘collection’ of buildings is deceivingly disparate: roofs tilt and slant at odd angles, and – as before – are clad in a variety of materials. Within, the Hoffmann Building is logically reorganised as one, with rustic, textural insertions that complement the industrial nature of the existing buildings. Recycled brick, board- marked concrete, plywood, raw steel and timber-framed roofs echo the architectural language of the Maltings and are a comfortable foil to the existing patinas layered over time that have been retained wherever possible.
Of particular note is the expansive Britten Studio, which is the only new-build part of the project, though it seamlessly recalls the distinctive raking kiln roofs surrounding it. Its spartan interior is marked by an in situ cast concrete shell that gradually wears away towards floor level, exposing aggregate and mimicking the degradation of nearby sea defence walls, while also buffering sound reflection. Above it, boxes lined with Douglas- fir march along the full length, something like a musical score, with blocks fixed at varying heights according to acoustic criteria.
A Corten shell has been inserted into the brick remnants of the Dovecote to form an artists’ studio in the Aldeburgh campus grounds
Beyond the Hoffmann Buildings, and standing alone on the marsh-facing lawn, is the award-winning Dovecote artists’ studio. As Dillon notes: “The idea of a dovecote – which could be seen as a frivolous building on an industrial site – is unusual,” and Haworth Tompkins sought to convey the charm and whimsy that it would have originally held. Though its collapsing remains had become choked with ivy and structurally worrisome, the architects opted to shore it up and create a bold palimpsest, rather than rebuild it entirely. Drawing on ship-building techniques – appropriate, given the site’s proximity to the sea – a prefabricated Corten steel ‘hull’ sits snugly within the old brick base. The pitch of its roof and fiery orange hue emulate its predecessor, while inside the simple double-height volume is clad with plywood and pierced by simple openings: an idyllic place to compose, write, paint or choreograph new work.
The sparse, plywood-clad interior of the Dovecote artists’ studio is a retreat for artists to write, compose, paint or choreograph
Consistent, too, is the most recent part of the work here: the Trask Artists’ Cafe, between the Snape Maltings Concert Hall and the Britten-Pears School for young artists. Lined with straw-board and plywood, with a concrete and brick shell, the light-filled ‘canteen’ is suitably robust, while taking full advantage of the marshland views.
It is clear that all visitors to the site – be they walkers, birdwatchers, concert-goers, artists or simply those in search of a cup of tea – delight in Haworth Tompkins’ realised intention for the project. The architects have successfully preserved the ways Snape Maltings has changed over time, and its humble seat within a distinctive landscape of grand heritage.