The Forum is a £65million project built to mark the Millennium in Norwich. Formally the home of the Norwich Central Library, the Forum sits on a pre-conquest settlement, which became inhabited by French settlers after the Norman invasion. The architect for this new building was Sir Michael Hopkins, who also designed the new refectory at the Anglican Cathedral. It is a vastly modern construction on a site that is steeped in history.
The French, who came to Norwich after the conquest, were not the first settlers to the site of The Forum. Previous research had indicated that this area was mostly rural up until the arrival of the Norman; however, evidence of pre-Conquest activity has now been unveiled.
Ditches have been uncovered that do not match those characteristic of the Norman (and later) streets, set north-west to south-east. It is thought that these represent lanes running in-between Saxon fields, or tenement divisions.
There have also been some indications of Viking settlements. A Viking gold ingot was found in the north-west corner of the excavation site of the Forum. It is the only gold ingot of this type discovered so far in England. The gold ingot was found in material that was thought to be from a much later period, perhaps brought to the site from elsewhere - it was located amongst some bedding sand of an 18th century floor. However, further discoveries would suggest gold working was taking place in or around the area during the Anglo-Scandinavian (860-917) or Anglo-Saxon (917-1066) periods.
Despite evidence of earlier settlers to this site, it was with the French that this area of the city thrived. The French settlers who came to Norwich formed a quarter of their own on the western side of the growing city; for the English were not trusted as traders. It was not unusual to have French dominated areas at this time, and similar arrangements existed at Bristol and Nottingham. Indeed, Nottingham, like Norwich, had a castle and borough established alongside an existing Anglo-Scandinavian town.
It was during the time of the conquest and beginnings of the French borough, that the churches of St Gile's, St Stephen's and St Peter Mancroft were established. There were also other buildings constructed at this time, two in particular, on Bethel Street, that were of importance as they were built out of stone, at a time when most were of timber.
During the high middle ages, the French borough was one of the wealthiest parts of Norwich. There was a slowing down of activity in the 13th and 14th centuries, which seemed to be renewed in the 15th and 16th centuries.
During the Reformation the site also became home to immigrants from the Low Countries. Known as 'Strangers', they were heavily involved in the textile trade. Evidence for their presence, especially in this trade, was discovered in the form of pits, lined with timber and stone, which were used as tanks, and from a cellar floor that contained fossilised remains of plants used in the dying process.
In 1956 the sketch plans were prepared for the new Norwich Central Library, to be built on the site of what was later to become the Forum. Designed by architect David Percival, it opened in 1963. The building was devastated by fire in 1994. The fire did, however, provide the opportunity for massive excavations of the site, and of course, the eventual construction of the Forum itself.
Today the Forum is an amazing sight. It has a three story external frame built over a two story basement car park. The main section forms an enclosing horseshoe, made from handmade load bearing bricks with several windows, which are longer than standard bricks. The roof is supported by tubular steel trusses, in filled with acoustically absorbing metal cladding, being made from solid panels constructed from zinc.
Work began on the construction of the Forum in May 1999. In March 2000, a time capsule was buried in the foundations of the building, containing a newspaper, some coins, and plans relating to the building itself, among other things. The project was completed in October 2001 and opened to the public one month later. The Forum was officially opened by the Queen, Elizabeth II in July 2002.
The Forum plays host to a number of permanent businesses and organisations. BBC East's regional headquarters are located here, where television and radio programmes are broadcast from.
The Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library may also be found here, providing the public with access to a vast range of reading and other material. This also includes the Heritage Centre, which allows people to research their ancestry, or find out about many aspects of local history. Additionally, there is the Business Library and the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library.
The atrium of The Forum hosts a number of activities, displays, exhibitions and entertainment shows, on a regular basis. Local artists can showcase their work, and business or organisations can promote a wide range of ideas and products.
'Origins' was also housed at The Forum. This is a visitor centre (with gift shop) that spans three floors of the building, allowing people to explore aspects of Norwich's history. There is also a restaurant and café/bar.