Destinations

Stephen Feber

We're natural travellers. However sophisticated our modern cities and transport systems become, they are an expression of a basic instinct; we love to explore. If there is a rhythm of curiosity in us, of exploration and reflection, there¹s also a deep need to arrive; journeys need destinations. And, just as we love to travel and arrive, we love to tell stories. The movements of plot, character, suspense and sequence that drive the story also mark the journey; fiction and travel are joined by a common thread of narrative.

When Wilkinson Eyre create new destinations they understand this need to work with human nature, to create architecture that supports the rhythm of human exploration and provides the material of storytelling. At Magna the challenge was to transform a derelict steel mill in a post industrial landscape to stimulate regeneration in South Yorkshire. This meant creating a successful visitor attraction in which exhibits and buildings were in harmony, where the whole was truly more than the sum of the parts. Though an important goal was to show science and technology in action through interactive exhibitions, making memorable experiences for visitors was of paramount importance. What we remember, we talk about - and good word of mouth is an incredibly effective promotional tool. This is the first rule of destination creation: however clever and complex the design thinking, it has to be capable of being summed up simply by a visitor. At Magna the sheer scale of the building - deftly handled by careful detailing - invariably prompts stories of vivid experiences; the very best kind of marketing.

The second rule is about tension. No great story is told in the first sentence. So, despite its size, Magna is experienced as a pattern of revelation and concealment. From the first approach, the building engages the curiosity by showing itself to the visitor and then hiding again behind earth banks. Even when alongside, in the car park, the length of the building is revealed but not its depth.

Once inside, a series of large and small spaces rouses the instinct to explore by creating a sequence of spatial compression and expansion. The mix of spaces, iconic structures and rich exhibition areas were designed to offer a range of narrative pace and a variety of challenges to the different sections of the Magna audience. The contrast between the open and closed volumes is heightened at Magna by the use of interactive sculpture, deliberately woven into the fabric of the building rather than applied as 'art'. These hotspots of experience are linked throughout the building by a carefully designed light and soundscape. The result is a multisensory tapestry - exactly the rich, deep experience which is a stimulus to discovery and an anchor to recall.

Such complexity of space, sound, light and structure could easily have become fragmented, but a key factor in Magna's success was the formation of an integrated design team spurred by the simple goal of making a beautiful and useful science centre. The building and its exhibitions were treated as one, with interactive experiences for children and adults at the core. Although there was an emphasis on creating a single product the goal was also to create spectacular peaks in the visit, which could support a marketing campaign, stressing the difference and challenge of the Magna experience, summed up in the single phrase 'Off Limits!' Behind the simplicity of the advertising promise stood the reality of a complex but integrated design. This is a third key lesson; for a brand to be established, a strong, value for money product and simply understood promotion must be in step. Visitors hear stories before arriving; the place has to make them come true and create new ones in turn. Magna achieved this and delivered as a destination.

Before Magna Wilkinson Eyre had several successful essays in creating destinations: Explore@Bristol, and the Wellcome Wing and Making of the Modern World Gallery at London's Science Museum. The Science Museum spaces are more constrained than Magna and have a different job to do. The museum is already a world-class destination, which in a way has an excess of riches; it's a department store that stocks only icons. The two galleries have to work as destinations in their own right and this they do by offering a simplicity of form to the visitor, yet with an underlying depth of richness in the collections and interactive exhibits. Again, the spatial movements are simple and the visit experience is graded to age and interest levels.

In the North East, the Tyne bridges stand as heroic structures, evoking a great engineering past. Yet they also have a quality of possession and personalisation; people like them, sometimes naming them like a mantra as they cross the river on the train. The Gateshead Millennium Bridge captures this genius loci and yet, in a way that none of its predecessors can manage, it also marries the organic and the mechanical. The double parabolic form is intrinsically pleasing and structurally efficient; balance and lightness allow the bridge to rise elegantly when river traffic requires it. Form, function and materials all work together to give an integrity and honesty of purpose, which is tangible because visitors and residents get so close to it. The random nature of the bridge opening is important too. If this were a theme park bridge it would open on the hour, with a programme of interpretation to boot. The fact that it is unpredictable reinforces both its utilitarian purpose and adds to the slight sense of mystery that surrounds it. The lighting scheme intensifies this, changing colour in a way that is alluring for adults and magnetic for children.

Put all these things together and the bridge has become a destination in it itself. It links past and present through engineering, tapping into a pride in making things which is a common root for local people. It works too as a signpost to the cluster of hotels, residential developments and restaurants on the river which has now gained critical mass, with the Sage and the Baltic as key recent additions. The bridge hasn't caused all this to happen but its beautiful structure has come to stand for the new richness of the two cities, giving a real underpinning to their symbolic linking and acting as the badge for the new Newcastle-Gateshead brand. Fitness for purpose is linked to a resonance with place, history and destination.

In a city destination, the architecture of the streets, of closed and open spaces, iconic buildings, thresholds and transitions mark out not just a pattern for navigation but the skeleton for a traveller¹s narrative. Sometimes the intrinsic armature which grounds this is strong; the historic core of Newcastle-Gateshead provides a street pattern of great richness and variety. How individual travellers forage within this, how far they risk discovery or stay with the known, is a matter of choice but the city¹s form helps both the adventurous and the timid make sense of it. Sometimes, as with the National Waterfront Museum at Swansea, the clues to creating destination are there but in a subtler form.

The site is on the northern fringe of Swansea's Maritime Quarter, and forms an important link between Swansea Bay and the City centre. At the heart of the 19th century docks, it is a literal pivot in the town's history, standing between its pre-industrial past and post-industrial future. As industrialisation severed the human link between city and sea, so the new museum, landscaping and transport links are helping reconnect them. Here, the design vocabulary evokes history without becoming a 'heritage' pastiche. The curving form of railway tracks appears in the new landscaping and influences the setting out of car parking. The layout of the new galleries follows the line of the old revetment wall which carried a high level track through the site, letting the buildings interlock like the carriages of a train. In a more distant echo, the building is clad with three types of local slate, recalling the mineral wealth shipped from the docks in the heyday of the port. Although part of the architectural intervention has to be robust some of the responses are delicate and exact, almost subliminal. The result is a destination that is of its context and yet distinct.

Whereas Swansea weaves historic clues into a fresh and coherent whole, the new arena and conference centre on Liverpool's King's Waterfront is a stand-alone icon, a new focal point for the city's Capital of Culture celebrations in 2008. The arena has to work hard to be a destination. Separated from the city centre by distance, a dual carriageway and down river from the Albert Dock complex, the design needs a powerful presence. The form of the building achieves this with its unfolded wings and central 'hinge'. It has three things important in a new destination: an immediate, singular presence, both from land and water; a place of congregation offering people as part of the show; a venue for events. In the tradition of the docks and ocean liner terminals before it, the development stands as a place of spectacle on the Mersey. Without the permanent exhibits of an attraction, the arena¹s drawing power is partly the internal theatre of its events and partly the shape of the envelope; both comforting and compelling, acting as sign and symbol.

Ultimately destinations that work have the heartbeat of a memorable journey. They have richness and depth that allows them to hold tension and provide fulfilment for a range of audiences, offering a variety of experiences later to unfold in traveller's tales. When they encourage a cluster of complementary uses, even in unpromising post-industrial landscapes, they can turn locations into destinations. To understand this and create a design that puts it into play requires a creative will and collaborative intelligence which is rare.

This piece appears in the book 'Destinations' (WilkinsonEyre 2005).