High Views Lincoln / Boston, Lincolnshire, UK, 2007
Sustrans National Cycle Network Centre
Boston and Lincoln, Lincolnshire, UK
2004 - 2007
Robbrecht en Daem architecten
Witherford Watson Mann Architects
Off the beaten path
12 October 2007
By Ellis Woodman
For its first UK project, Belgian architect Robbrecht en Daem architecten has given cyclists, walkers, rowers and birdwatchers a pair of towers in Lincolnshire linked by a riverside path. Ellis Woodman takes in the views as he talks to the team that built them
As he strikes a course through the vast east Lincolnshire fenland, Johan Stockbroekx’s sat nav chunters away reassuringly in Dutch. Road signs announce places with Viking names — Fishtoft, Skegness, Ingoldmells — but the sole landmark of any consequence in this interminably flat landscape is proving elusive. St Botolph’s Church in Boston — or the Boston Stump as it is universally known — was constructed in the 15th century to the extraordinary height of 83m. Conceived, it is thought, as a navigation aid for boats using the town’s harbour, it remains the tallest parish church in England.
Finally, eight kilometres out of town, we spot it, a strikingly anthropomorphic presence in this emptiest of places.
Before we reach the edge of Boston, however, Stockbroekx pulls his car over beside a lock-keeper’s cottage and our little party makes its way by foot along the banks of the River Witham. We are here to see one of the pair of viewing towers that Belgian contractor Stockbroekx has built in his workshop and has spent the past week installing. Joining us is the man that designed them, Paul Robbrecht of the Ghent-based architect Robbrecht en Daem architecten, also a filmmaker who is shooting a number of the practice’s projects for a forthcoming retrospective exhibition.
The idea, he explains, is to show films of the different projects side by side so that varying intensities of occupation are juxtaposed. The Lincolnshire footage promises to be the most sparsely populated.
It has to be said that coming here by car is a bit of a cheat. The towers have been commissioned to mark either end of a 55km cycle path that is being established along the Witham from Boston to Lincoln. This route will form part of the National Cycle Network that Sustrans has been creating over the past decade — an infrastructure that, to date, extends for 16,000km.
Sustrans and the Lincolnshire Public Art Network ran a competition for the two structures in 2004, which Robbrecht en Daem architecten won with proposals that are rather more elaborate than the ones that have been built. After pruning to bring in the designs within the £135,000 budget, it still proved impossible to find a British contractor that was prepared to undertake the work. Stockbroekx’s company, Wuyts, with which Robbrecht en Daem architecten has had a long relationship, came to the rescue.
Prior to the last ice age, when Britain was connected to Europe by dry land, the Witham formed a tributary of the Rhine. Today, for much of its length it tracks a manmade course towards the Wash, channelled between engineered embankments. We follow it downriver, with fields extending to either side of us and the Stump lying ahead. Then, after 10 minutes, there it is: a staircase, enigmatically detached from any destination more concrete than the view from its uppermost step.
At first, all we can see is the second of its two flights: it juts out from the trees that line the route and ascends to a point just shy of 5m above the path. The feat of engineering that has made this possible is belied by the extreme delicacy of the tower’s articulation. The steel structure is disguised by a palisade of narrow vertical larch strips which forms a continuous balustrade and gives the skeleton volume. The strips are mounted with gaps between them, having the effect that — from this long view — we can see through the structure, as if through a ghost. That sense of ethereality is compounded by the fact that a number of the strips have been painted, creating a camouflage-like effect. A subtle livery of red, white and blue has been employed, the exact hues being derived from the plumage of local birds. The architect’s hope is that both towers will prove popular with ornithologists.
The distribution of colours appears random but Robbrecht assures me otherwise. For a number of years, he has been working with a proportional system of his own devising. The sequence begins with the numbers 3, 5 and 7, which are then successively multiplied by themselves and each other to give 9, 15, 21, 25, 35, 49 and finally the magic figure of 105. Robbrecht calls them the “Louie numbers” in honour of Kahn who, he deadpans, didn’t use a proportional system himself. In the Sustrans project, the Louie numbers have been used both to generate the pattern of the colours and as a means of regulating the structures’ proportions.
Drawing closer, it becomes clear that while the Boston tower’s design may have been guided by this abstract system, it is very much an authored object. The architect has nuanced the form in several ways that serve to dramatise our experience of it. Take, for example, the central structure that props the stair. This is essentially a braced steel table to which larch boarding has been applied. The boards run vertically, but in contrast to the balustrade they present their wider face towards us, creating a less permeable appearance. And the steelwork isn’t quite the boxy assembly that one imagines the
engineer originally specified. One of the steel posts has been kicked off the vertical, introducing a twisting action to the form. The visual effect recalls the contortion of an athlete’s body as he throws a discus or javelin.
As we climb the stair, further refinements become apparent. While the larch balustrade to our left maintains a steady height, its opposite number extends to eye level at the bottom step but steadily reduces in height until it stops just above the handrail at landing level. Turning onto the second flight we find the game repeated. The gesture ensures that our sense of enclosure shifts continuously as we rise. It also invests the structure with an unsettling false perspective: seen from below, each flight appears markedly longer than it does when viewed from above.
The outlook from the top doesn’t disappoint. Robbrecht likens it to the elevated prospect offered in so many of the paintings of his fellow lowlander Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Fields extend for as far as the eye can see, their patterns finding subtle echoes in the coloured bands of the balustrade. Robbrecht suggests that a school group could use the structure as a makeshift auditorium while their teacher describes the setting.
On the journey to Lincoln, I quiz the architect some more about the role that the Louis numbers play in his work. He talks about his early fascination with Palladio’s use of geometry and claims that when his practice works on urban planning projects, it has been known to use the system at the scale of kilometres. I am not quite sure whether he’s kidding or, for that matter, how seriously I am meant to take his story about using the system to choose his locker number when he goes swimming.
Le Corbusier is the most celebrated recent example of an architect who shaped his work around a generative geometrical system, and it is surely no coincidence that in both his work and that of Robbrecht en Daem architecten, the spiral proves a recurring motif. The Chamber Hall of Robbrecht en Daem architecten’s 2002 concert hall in Bruges is a prime example. Its 320 seats are distributed along a ramp that tracks three rotations around the edge of the performance space before discharging onto a roof terrace. A smaller concert hall in Gaasbeek, completed in 2004, is capped by a spiralling ziggurat. As well as modeling the interior, the form enables the public to climb on top of it and look out across the surrounding farmland. While the Lincolnshire towers are altogether more modest, in their systematic nature they share a sensibility with these examples. In essence, they are devices designed to mediate between the human body and the landscape — and the mechanism by which that mediation is enacted is geometry.
Sat at the edge of a car park, the Lincoln site has little of the bucolic allure of the one at Boston. What it can claim is a great view of Lincoln Cathedral, perched 1.5km away at the top of the punishingly steep hill over which the medieval city is draped.
It is to this view that the tower is oriented. Its steel frame describes a box of rectangular plan, its short sides splayed outwards so it reads like a wedge that has been struck into the ground. Again the steelwork is faced in larch boarding, although this time it is mounted horizontally with the wide face of each plank set flush to the structure. The gaps between boards increase up the height of the tower — a move that, like the outward splaying of the frame, defies the effects of perspective. Colour again animates a number of the boards. As at Boston, white serves as the palette’s base tone, joined here by a dark blue and a yellow, sourced from the Bluethroat and Yellowhammer respectively.
As so often when he is talking about his work, the image Robbrecht uses to describe the character of the tower is one drawn from art. A recurring motif in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, he explains, is that of a woman occupying the hollow of a tree. Set slightly back from the edge of the car park, with trees all about, the structure does indeed offer something of the womb-like intimacy conjured by that image. While rising to the same height as the other tower, it offers a far more tightly choreographed ascent in the form of a ramp followed by three flights of stairs, all of which are contained within the steel frame. A spine wall of vertical steel rods extends up the height of the structure, serving as an inner balustrade and also elaborating the play of shadows produced by the perforate larch boarding.
A week before our visit, the 71st annual Boston Rowing Marathon had taken place. The course extends all the way from Lincoln to Boston, making it one of the longest in the world. Robbrecht explains that he is particularly excited by the idea that his towers might be adopted as part of the furniture of this popular event.
It is a characteristic observation. For all his preoccupation with abstract formal values, he is equally concerned to make work that relates to the cultural specificities of its situation.
His practice has a long history of collaboration with visual artists and the list of figures that it has chosen to work with is a telling one. Juan Munoz, Cristina Iglesias and Franz West are among past collaborators, while Rachel Whiteread is set to contribute to the extension of London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery which Robbrecht en Daem architecten is currently undertaking in collaboration with Witherford Watson Mann. All of these artists might be characterised as post-minimalist in the sense that one of their central concerns has been to imbue their work with an element of narrative — a quality that was notably absent from the work of the previous generation of artists. Robbrecht en Daem architecten’s work shares that ambition, often drawing on imagery buried deep within the European imagination in an attempt to charge the everyday circumstance with a mythic dimension. In this goal, the little towers succeed wonderfully, and one can be sure that as they become entangled in the lives of the people that use the river, their potency will only intensify.