Sittingbourne Cultural Centre

Sittingbourne, Kent

We assembled a multi-disciplinary design team, including two local Artists, Quantity Surveyors, Structural and Environmental Engineers, Landscape Architects, as well as us, the architects. The proposed Culture Centre was intended to be a lot more than just a new building; it would form the centre-piece/ fulcrum for a series of truly public places prioritised for people – not cars. This place would be the largest public gathering spot in Sittingbourne, famous for its linear Roman Road.

The site had only recently (ie. in the late 1950’s) been developed as part of the town centre itself. Formerly an orchard and playing fields, we felt there was a need to continue building up the layers of history on the site by creating a new history through the creative process of architecture and place-making. Sittingbourne has a rich heritage of culture and has been known throughout history as a stopping/gathering place on the Pilgrims Way, as well as having traditions of brick, paper making and barge building. These issues should be celebrated in a vital contemporary way.

We wanted to create a clearly defined series of interlocking places that take you on a number of routes from the high street to most of the civic facilities in Sittingbourne, with the Culture Centre acting as the new ‘foil’, drawing you in and around numerous other routes through the site and beyond. The ambition is for a clear hierachy of spaces as opposed to the current ‘sea of cars’ that is over-powering and renders the landscape and buildings very unclear to negotiate on foot or by car. We used a number of local ‘icons’ as devices to steer you along your route through the site. By planting a new avenues of limes, shelter for crops was created in a similar way to other locations near the site. An urban coppice would be planted against the Town Hall at the south side of the site. This creates the option of a quieter place as well as a screen against the inevitable car parking. This carpark could be developed in years to come when we are not so car-dependent. Hop poles influence our steel and wire structure that defines our Central Square. As well as a place to meet people, have a coffee and let the kids play, it could be used for external performances with the new building as a backdrop to project film against. Finally we suggested an earth mound for gathering or playing on. It also has a more serious point to make – it will be formed using spoil from the building site, spoil that would otherwise go into land fill.

Our architectural propositions endeavoured to address the need for a defining presence on the site. We envisaged a building that is secure yet accessible from three points; allowing it to be walked through at ground level as part of the public realm. The main North & South elevations are treated quite differently to make the most of the design potentials afforded by solar gain from the south and heat loss from the North. The South elevation is a layered glass facade with adjustable solar shades perhaps evoking the sails of Thames barges. The auditorium can be seen from the new square looking in essence like a boat hull. In contrast the North elevation is solid with openings cut into it. This facade is the main draw into the new development from the high street. We therefore spent time creating an enticing sculptural form. The artists in our team had many ideas, ranging in scale from door knobs and street furniture to whole elements of the buildings’ structure.