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Leisure Media - Carolyn Merrifield

Architect Focus

Carolyn Merrifield

Creating a modern arts centre in a historic building, and designing the leisure complexes for Center Parcs’ new resort in Woburn – just a couple of the challenges taken on by Holder Mathias. Partner Carolyn Merrifield tells us more

Carolyn Merrifield became a partner at Holder Mathias in 2008
The café has glazed walls, allowing passers-by to see inside
Holder Mathias has designed the leisure buildings for Center Parcs’ new site in Woburn
Holder Mathias has designed the leisure buildings for Center Parcs’ new site in Woburn
Instead of dividing the upstairs into two rooms using partitions, the architects created a cinema pod
The cinema pod has been a huge success, and an important source of revenue for the centre
The seating can slide away, allowing the theatre space to be used for alternative events

What drew you to a career in architecture?
A love of art and science. There are very few careers that allow you to combine both of those things.

How did you start your career?
I studied architecture at Cardiff University. I then spent a year in London at a small practice, then came back to Cardiff. I spent a short spell working for the local authority, which convinced me that I wanted to be part of a practice rather than being a small cog in a big anonymous wheel.

I joined a company called Burgess, which seemed to have the right sort of philosophy for me. I quickly rose through the ranks and became a partner at 31. That lasted 16 years – I became managing director of Burgess Wales, but then decided I wanted to work for a slightly bigger organisation with a wider variety of work. The biggest and best architectural practice in Wales is Holder Mathias so I jumped ship six years ago and became a partner about a year later.

How would you describe your philosophy when it comes to architecture?
It’s a combination of thinking about and responding to the environment, and making sure that you meet the client’s requirements. That’s very important; while you’ve got to have a clear concept that responds to the environment, you can’t let that get in the way of meeting the brief. If the client isn’t happy you won’t get more work, so I’m not precious from that point of view.

What do you think the role of architecture is?
It’s about creating beautiful places, improving the environment and creating something that everyone will enjoy.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
It’s generally not particular architects that inspire me. It’s more about the quality of the space we are creating, and about trying to get the detailing right. I like using natural materials like glass and wood, and thinking about how those materials go together so they are really beautifully designed.

How did you get involved with Gwyn Hall?
Several years ago, we were involved with a commercial developer called Simons and were putting in a big bid for the redevelopment of Neath’s town centre [in South Wales]. As part of our concept, we wanted to link in with the refurbishment of Gwyn Hall, which was taking place at the time.

We had our final presentation the day that Gwyn Hall burned down. We literally turned up in the morning with the smell of smoke in the air and everyone a bit shocked that this beloved building had burned down. We won the job and impressed Simons, and about three months afterwards they asked us to do some concept work for Gwyn Hall. That’s when I started to work with Wilco Stekkinger, who was a very important part of the design team on this project.

What was the brief?
To try and create three venues: a community theatre, a 3D cinema and a multipurpose studio. I didn’t think the client felt it was possible at the beginning, because the site is really small. Before the fire, there was just one real venue – the main theatre just about filled the whole space – plus an over-wide corridor that could sort of be used as a second venue. The café and back of house areas were under the theatre.

We have really used every square millemetre of the space in the building to create those three venues.

What was your concept?
Before the fire, Gwyn Hall’s main theatre was on the upper floor, which meant you had to get 300 or 400 people all the way up the stairs, only to bring them back down again. That used up a huge amount of space.

The moment you decide to put the theatre on the ground floor, you lose a lot of that circulation space, which is fantastic, but then you hit a problem because the theatre is too tall to fit within the old-fashioned structure – the roof of the theatre would have clashed with the first floor windows.

Our idea was to lift the structure right to the top of those first floor windows, but still bend it down so that the theatre is the height you expect it to be. It’s almost like the underside of a boat, so it links in at the edges but then barely comes down over the theatre, which is where we sat the upper floor. That gave the space lots of headroom – if you’d just tried to put the upper floor in the roof, you would have been really restricted.

We couldn’t lift the roof; the outside of the building had to be exactly as it was before the fire.

It really was quite a clever concept. The client said they wanted three spaces, but they didn’t really have a big enough site to deliver them. By doing it this way, we could suddenly give them a lovely 400-seat theatre, a nice studio and the 3D cinema, which was key for them to try to drive some money back into the organisation.

How did you design each of the venues?
We designed a new theatre which is completely multipurpose. That was something the client wanted, but they were expecting us to just blank out the windows. The building had lovely big arched windows with fine stonework and stained glass in, so we said why not make them part of the auditorium. For daytime events, the windows can be used as part of the space. For evening events, we have two sets of blinds – acoustic blinds and blackout blinds – which makes it a truly multipurpose space. It means it can be used for amplified and choral shows.

We designed seats that can slide out of the way for events where the floor space is needed, and a timber floor. The space also has an orchestra pitch, so you can either have the full rank of 400 seats, or you can have fewer seats and an orchestra.

The roof was completely destroyed by the fire, so we put in lovely new curved timber trusses. We thought it was a pity to split the space upstairs into two rooms for the cinema and dance studio, so we came up with the idea of sitting the cinema in the space like a little pod. It looks quite alien and modern, and you can see the whole roof over and around it. It makes for a really fantastic big volume that would have been ruined if you’d put an ordinary partition up between the two venues.

The café is at the front of the building. By making it out of glass, it immediately makes the front of the building very vibrant, because people can see what’s happening inside.

How was sustainability taken into account?
It was really important to us, although there was a limit to what we could do. We used natural light and natural ventilation everywhere we could, and displacement ventilation where we couldn’t. We did up the fabric of the building and improved it quite a lot. It was about trying to make everything as efficient as possible. We also tried to use natural, locally-sourced materials.

The client felt it was very important that we used Welsh slate, although it’s not cheap. The new stonework had to be matched exactly with the existing stonework. We had to colour match and material match the mortar; even the size of the grains had to match. The listed people were really picky about trying to make sure that when you looked at it you would never really tell what had been patched and fixed and what hadn’t been.

What was left of the building after the fire?
Pretty much all that was left were four walls. The roof had completely gone, the floor had completely gone. At the front of the building there were two stairwells on either side with a spiral staircase in – that was remarkably unscathed. The chimneys were there briefly but the client was so worried about the structural stability of the walls that they had to push them in so they were destroyed. We had to completely rebuild them from photographs.

What is your favourite part of the refurbished building?
The top studio, with the lovely curved beams and the cinema pod at the bottom end. It’s such a surprisingly modern space in a lovely old building.

What were the biggest challenges of this project?
The limitations on the height. The thing about theatres is that there are a lot of people in them, and you have to deliver an awful lot of air [conditioning], and you have to do it very quietly, as people obviously don’t want to hear the air conditioning system. That means huge ducts. It was difficult with such an old building, trying to squeeze all the services into the headroom we had, particularly since the planners said no grilles on the outside of the building and no big new penetrations through the walls. We did manage it but it was ‘by the millimetre’ stuff.

What reactions have you had?
The centre has been so popular in Neath. They’ve had great audience numbers. The theatre and second space have been very busy, and the cinema has been a huge hit. Late in the day, the client said they wanted to use the main auditorium as a back up cinema for peak times. When Skyfall came out it was broadcast in the big cinema and they had sell out audiences. It’s great for a theatre like that to get extra revenue.

It’s quite an understated building. It’s not particularly showy, but I’m pleased with how carefully a lot of the detailing has been carried through.

Who do you admire in architecture?
Angela Brady who is the current president of RIBA, because she is a female role model in architecture and there are so few of us at a senior level.

I also like Zaha Hadid’s architecture. On a more local level, there is an architect called Chris LLoyn who does lots of quite small residential work. He’s managed to get a really lovely balance of design and materials.

What do you love about your job?
The variety. I work on so many different building types.
Also, as an architect, you are creating something. With almost every client we deal with, we’re helping with an idea they’ve got and we’re creating something out of it which is going to last and is hopefully better than what they might have imagined.

And what do you enjoy the least?
It’s a constant battle to maintain that original concept and the quality of the project. From the moment you come up with the idea, you’re constantly having to reduce the thing down to make sure it is affordable. You might have a battle with the planners, and you frequently have a battle with the contractors who will want to try to make it cheaper.

It’s a bit of a miracle when you get to the end of the job and it is what you wanted it to be.

Where is your favourite place on earth?
I love Three Cliffs Bay in the Gower [in South Wales, UK]. It’s just the most perfect setting. It was great when my children were young because it has a lovely safe area of water and it’s really protected from the elements.

Are you working on any other leisure projects?
I’m hoping to get started soon on a project at The Wood Norton Hotel in Evesham, Worcestershire, which has just opened after a major restoration. They want us to design a new eco spa for them – we’re hoping to get started on the project this summer.

We’re also very busy with Center Parcs work. We’re doing the leisure buildings at the new Center Parcs at Woburn. We’ve also just finished refurbishing Butlins’ pool in Skegness.


Client: Neath Port Talbot Borough Council
Value: £8m

The Victorian Grade II listed theatre was devastated by a fire in 2007, part way through a £4m restoration project.

Holder Mathias took the shell of the destroyed building and transformed it into a a new Gwyn Hall, which houses a 400 seat state-of-the-at community thatre and 3D cinema, a 140 capacity studio venue and a 70 seat cinema.

Holder Mathias devised a way of providing a new café and entrance lobby by designing a contemporary glass box extension to the front of the building, allowing people to see inside the centre. The new arts centre reopened in 2012.

Originally published in Leisure Management 2013 issue 2
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