The impact of design: a golden age of cultural developments

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Fifteen years ago, it took a tenacious kind of visitor to seek out Rosslyn Chapel, writes Susan Mansfield. That was before the 15th century gothic church to the south of Edinburgh became the location for the final showdown in Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. In 2006, the year the book was made into a film starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, numbers of visitors to the chapel were six times what they had been a few years earlier.

The Rosslyn Chapel Trust, which looks after the building, found themselves with decisions to make. “There was a small visitor centre, a couple of toilets, an urn and some mugs and a very small shop,” says director Ian Gardner. “We decided we needed something more significant and substantial.”

Sensitive design

The Trust embarked on a £9million building programme, supported by Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund, which included repairs to the chapel itself and the construction of a new visitor centre, designed by Scottish architects Page\Park, which opened in May 2012. “There was a lot of discussion about how a new building would sit next to the 15th century building,” says Gardner. “The chapel is quite a small building, it would have been easy to have a big visitor centre but it would have been out of proportion.”

Page\Park’s sensitive design mirrored elements of the chapel itself: the pillars, and the structure of a high central space with side aisles. They created a building which could fulfil a variety of purposes – ticket-selling, cafe, shop, interpretation – within a comparatively small structure, as well as meet the higher expectations of today’s visitors. Ian Gardner says: “Expectations are higher across the whole of the visitor experience, from the website, signage and car park to the quality of the coffee. We are measured now on a much broader range of things than the historic building itself.”

Golden Age of cultural development

Rosslyn Chapel is just one of many visitor attractions in Scotland which has commissioned a major architectural project in the last decade. Jim MacDonald, chief executive of Architecture & Design Scotland, says we are living in a “golden age of cultural development”. “There have been all sorts of projects from the top of the country to the bottom, producing a phenomenal collection of cultural buildings. Buildings have been adapted and renewed in a way that would have inconceivable in 1995 because of the provision of Lottery funding. It has been great to see so much of that being delivered by home-grown talent.”

Visitor attractions large and small have been transformed. Work is not yet complete on the £20million 15-year masterplan for the Victorian section of National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh’s Chambers Street by a team lead by Hoskins Architects, but the largest phase, including the new entrance hall and refurbishment of the grand gallery, was unveiled in 2011.

Architecture and the visitor experience

Dr Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums Scotland, said: “Right from the beginning, we took the view that the architecture has come to be a fundamental part of the visitor experience. I would say in my personal view that the best museums have a unity of the architecture and the exhibits.”

The original building dating from the 1860s, with its beautiful glass-roofed atrium, is an attraction in itself, but the supporting facilities and galleries needed an overhaul. Gordon Rintoul said: “It’s always tricky with historic buildings, working out how to maintain the integrity of the original architectural vision and provide the facilities people are looking for today. What we realised was, in some areas of the historic building, openings had been blocked up to create subdivided rooms. The more we looked at it, the more we realised what we really needed to do was restore some of the original features.”

Visitors have been overwhelmingly positive about the change. The museum is now the most popular outside London hosting 1.8million visitors in 2016, more than twice the average before the redesign began. Dr Rintoul said: “The late Gareth Hoskins always said he wanted people to enter the building at pavement level, come up the stairs and say ‘Wow’. The comments we have suggest visitors are doing exactly that. It does grab people from the very beginning.”

Pulling power of design

Anyone looking for further evidence for the pulling power of design need only consider the success of the Kelpies, the 30-metre tall horse heads designed by sculptor Andy Scott beside the Forth & Clyde Canal near Falkirk. Scottish Canals, which manages the site, anticipated 350,000 annual visitors to the Kelpies and Helix Park; numbers are now averaging over 1 million. The Kelpies, the park and the Falkirk Wheel, which opened in 2002, have made Falkirk into one the fastest growing tourism destinations in Scotland.

Steve Dunlop, chief executive of Scottish Canals, said: “An area which had nothing 20 years ago now has two iconic structures which are all about design. That’s when you know that design matters.” He said that in all of Scottish Canals’ work, whether preserving industrial heritage, carrying out sensitive regeneration or managing visitor attractions, design is always at the forefront. “If you don’t think about design sufficiently at the start, you have to think about it later and it will cost you much, much more. You can’t escape from design, design is everything.”

Creating a destination

Some parts of Scotland will always attract visitors, like Robert Burns’ Ayrshire, but Alloway has also benefited from a major cultural investment. The £20million Burns Birthplace Museum, designed by architects Simpson & Brown for the National Trust for Scotland, opened in 2011, replacing the earlier, much smaller museum. With new education facilities, a cafe, shop and exhibition space, the building has become a destination in itself, with two-thirds of visitors not going specifically to see the collection.

Operations manager Caroline Smith says: “It has given us a lot more flexibility in terms of what we are able to offer visitors. The whole thing was driven by the collection. We have the world’s most significant collection of Burns objects and artefacts, and we needed a building which would provide suitable conditions to store and display them. Because we have more space, we can tell much more of the story of Burns than we did before.”

Producing a virtuous circle

Meanwhile, some 100 miles to the east, the team managing the home of Sir Walter Scott were facing a different set of challenges. When the Abbotsford Trust took over management of the estate in 2007, Abbotsford was losing money and needed essential repairs. The Trust embarked on a £12million development project which included repairs to the historic house, which was built by Scott in 1824, and a new visitor centre designed by Edinburgh based architects LDN. Rather like the Burns Birthplace Museum, the facilities, shop and cafe have become a destination in themselves.

Chief executive of the Abbotsford Trust Giles Ingram, said that the development was part of a long-term plan to give Abbotsford financially sustainability. “It has completely changed the way visitors use Abbotsford. [The visitor centre] is designed to encourage people to extend the length of their stay after they’ve seen the house, to explore the gardens and the wider estate as well, knowing that there are decent facilities to come back to. Each of the elements – the house, garden and estate – has an important part to play in telling the story of Scott.”

Good contemporary design is supporting these heritage attractions and enabling a much better quality of visitor experience. That produces what Ian Gardner at Rosslyn Chapel calls “a virtuous circle”. “If people have a great experience they will go away and tell other people, and that provides more income for us to look after the historic building.”


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