Friday, January 14, 2022

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

There is nothing like a dome

I thought I knew Great Malvern well. I visit it quite often, have inspected it beautiful, late-medieval priory, admired its splendid Victorian railway station, walked its leafy, genteel streets, trekked up – or part-way up – its hills in search of wells and views, and have poked around its secondhand bookshops in search of more things to add to my shelves. So the other day, walking down one of its streets for the first time, I looked to one side and saw the surprising structure in my photograph.

So what is it? Fortunately for me, a lottery-funded scheme to put up plaques explaining bits of Malvern’s history obliged with some information. It turns out to be something rather unusual. It is one of the very few surviving Binishells (named after their inventor, the Italian Dante Bini, and sometimes called Bini domes) in the UK. What distinguishes such a dome is the way it is built. The structure starts with a base, which takes the form of a concrete ring beam. On top of this is laid a large circular sandwich, in which the bread is two sheets of neoprene, while the filling is a mesh of expanding steel coil and a lot of wet concrete. When all this is in place and lying flat on top of the base, the builders pump air into the space between the base and the sandwich, inflating the neoprene, stretching the skin and expanding the reinforcing coil. In the case of the Malvern dome, which is 36 metres across, an hours’ pumping inflated the dome to 11 metres high. The air and stretched neoprene were then kept in this position, supported by air pressure, for three days, by which time the concrete would have set. Result: one dome, for use as a school sports hall..

In this example, eight windows were cut into the lower part of the dome once it had set solid, to provide natural light. When it was completed in 1978, the Duke of Edinburgh† came to open it, and it has been used for its original purpose ever since. Although it looks rather an interloper amongst Malvern’s greenery and mainly 19th-century architecture, its green curves are not entirely out of place among the trees. I hope it continues to be used and maintained – I know of only one other Bini shell in England, in Mildenhall, Suffolk, also a sports hall, though there may well be others. Here’s to Dante Bini and his domes.

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* Dante Bini, architect and industrial designer, born 1932, admirer of such innovative engineers as Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller, the latter famous for his pioneering work on geodesic domes. Bini has also been involved in designing rapidly built housing for the victims of disasters, making his designs available to others royalty-free.

† The dome is called the Edinburgh Dome in his honour.

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