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The Valley Palace Project : Towards A More Productive Architecture for the Contemporary City

Part 1 Project 2010
Elly Ward
London Metropolitan University | UK
The Valley Palace Project takes an abandoned ASDA warehouse and transforms it into a civic recreation facility providing an experience and programme of activities similar to that which one might normally find in a country park. Though the idea of creating a false landscape inside an industrial building surrounded by natural countryside may seem perverse, it is driven by the inaccessibility of open green space nearby and offers a sustainable and spectacular solution for a disused leasehold premises.

On one level, the proposal is simply a pragmatic response to the local impacts of growth and development: due to its rapid expansion programme, Didcot has an urgent requirement for outdoor recreational space but limited public funds available; at the same time several of Didcot’s huge warehouses have been sitting vacant for some time - bingo. However, the project also responds to a much broader set of issues around the notion of ‘productivity’.

Dormant warehouse space in the UK has recently risen to record levels as tenants of established areas such as Southmead Industrial Park vacate leaving these previously sufficient sites to potential decay. Commercial landlords are being forced to consider alternative tenants and the possibilities for adaptive re-use afforded by the long, wide spans of a huge industrial shed are endless, with a little imagination.

In this scenario the Council is assumed as client and, unable to afford any of the surrounding agricultural land scheduled for development, a deal has been struck with one particular warehouse owner that offers an experimental change of land use designation with assurances against future compulsory purchase in exchange for a short term lease and assistance towards certain improvements.

By using a series of lo-fi solutions and ready-made structures to create a scattering of multi-use, narrative interior elements, with only a light touch and subtle manipulation of the existing fabric, the retrofit design joyfully exploits its existing industrial features and in doing so enjoys considerable financial and environmental benefits too.

This combination of pragmatism, playfulness, mundanity and magic ultimately result in a uniquely delightful amenity for the public of Didcot and beyond.

Welcome to Valley Palace.

Elly Ward

The studio started the year with an ambition to engage with the factors shaping the places where we live and work. Not the much-mapped nodes of London, Paris or Venice but the Thames Valley, the post-suburban 'city' par excellence. Each student spent the year investigating a different ‘park of production’ within the Thames watershed, encouraged to appraise the physical and social topography with an open mind.

Elly interpreted the initial research propositions with vim. Her investigations into the Southmead Industrial Estate in South Oxfordshire used an inventive range of methods; interviewing the residents of a local caravan park, befriending distribution centre managers, council officials and power station operatives for access-all-areas tours and setting up her own live post on a ‘Truckers’ online forum. Rarely do undergraduate students demonstrate such a high level of genuine engagement with the population of their project and Elly has expertly filtered her research and brought it to bear upon a spatial problem.

Elly's project grapples with the maligned form of the contemporary industrial warehouse; her specific paragon, an abandoned ASDA distribution warehouse at the heart of Didcot. Her non-judgmental and careful study of the site's context and construction allowed her to use its architectural potential to identify alternative approaches to managing the negative aspects of change, presenting low-cost, short term, creative and viable solutions for building re-use.

The project's success lies in its ability to place personal experience, intuition and aesthetic ambition within a professional context. Both contingent and strategic, it uses an economy of means, and identifies opportunities within the shifting economies and bureaucratic aspirations of a particular place at a particular moment of time.

Elly took real ownership of her project from the start, pushing the narrative and developing entirely appropriate means of representation. Her Valley Palace has all the optimistic zeal of the establishment of the first church in a pioneer's gold rush town and the progressiveness of London’s first public subscription circulating library in 1841.

It is a significant project, providing a compelling, non-ironic contribution to a critical debate in a little considered context.


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