The award-winning Forum building, designed by Sir Michael Hopkins, is the landmark Millennium project for Norwich in the East of England. It stands on the site of the former Central Library, which was destroyed by fire in 1994.
Managed and maintained by The Forum Trust, an independent, charitable company which holds the building’s 125-year lease to look after it on behalf of the Millennium Commission and local councils, the central aim is that the Forum and the Millennium Plain benefit the community so that everyone can enjoy using them.
It was felt, after several years, that the Millennium Plain had not filled its full potential and so in 2004, thanks to a grant from the Millennium Commission, Werner de Bock CMLI of Landplan Associates (chartered landscape architects) was commissioned to prepare several designs for the remodelling of the steps and paved areas. The brief was to create a public city space that would be more flexible to accommodate a wider array of outdoor performances using upgraded quality and durable materials to replace the largely standard concrete slab paving.
The brief asked for the existing concrete slab surfacing and rigid step arrangement to be replaced by more visually appealing and durable quality surfacing materials. It also requested that space was made to accommodate a large variety of existing and future uses including an ice rink at Christmas, a more versatile outside performance space and facilities for outside BBC broadcasting (The BBC has offices and studios inside the Forum).
Landplan Associates produced a design that created a new series of wide, hand-carved, silver-grey granite curved steps of generous proportions to fit more sympathetically into the existing sloping site contours in comparison with the previous situation. This design also allowed for a more generously dimensioned and useable central paving area.
The design was constructed on site with paving materials supplied by Hardscape Ltd and consisting of a combination of large grey Chinese granite paving slabs and interlocking curved Chinese granite steps set off by the warmer tones of Wienerberger’s Siena WF Dutch paving. These buff-coloured sandfaced bricks were laid flexibly on edge, as traditionally done in the Netherlands, on a compacted bed of sand with brushed in joints.
The large grey slabs were positioned at the higher level in front of the Forum building and were dimensioned to align with the existing internal paving within the Forum building itself. This allowed a seamless visual continuation of the paving joints through the glass facade of the building.
The steps were designed to lead from the building down onto the lower performance area and were paved with the same granite material cut into smaller paving units of varying width. A central circle was paved with hand cut silver grey granite setts.
As brick figures highly in the designs in the Centre of Norwich, Werner de Bock placed a special emphasis on the use of this clay within the paving design. As much as the look of the Plain was critical to the success of the finished project, the designer was also keen to use pavers that would be durable and have a non-slip surface to allow for the fact that most of the clay paving is on a gradient.
LED uplighters were incorporated into the curved granite step units, delineating the end of steps as they fade into the paving slope, and highlighting the stainless-steel handrails. A large solid grey granite vertical retaining wall element also serves as an engraved Millennium Plain place name totem sign.
Pop-up underground power and data supply columns were built into the design so that the sound and lighting associated with performances could be achieved without the use of, or minimising the need for, cumbersome surface trailing leads. Separate service access points were incorporated to allow ‘plug-in’ BBC outside broadcasting cameras. Special high power three phase supply cabling and connection facilities were installed to accommodate the installation of the wintertime ice rink.
Since its completion in 2005, the remodelling and enhancement of the Millennium Plain has enabled the creation of a “Covent Garden” style space for all visitors. The Forum Trust is delighted, not only with the improvements and with the multitude of new possibilities for uses of this important city space that have been created, but also with the overall look which sits well in the surrounding area.
Werner de Bock comments on how the pavers were intrinsic to the impact of the design, “The use of Wienerberger's Dutch sandfaced, narrow pavers alongside the granite maximises the impact of the overall appearance of the Plain. This design now positions the Forum and Millennium Plain as a focal point for all visitors to the City.”
The urban open space in front of the Forum, known as the Millennium Plain, was initially delivered as part of the completed building in 2001. It has been the venue for a range of successful community activities including the installation of large screens for outdoor cinema and sports events, street entertainment, rock climbing and ice-skating.
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