The bar for this project could not have been set higher: taking the oldest museum in Britain and increasing display space by 100% while retaining Charles Cockerell’s 1845, Grade I Listed building, resulting in 9000 square metres of new accommodation that remains largely invisible to the public realm and to do so by means of a single narrow access off St Giles that is only a couple of metres wide – this is real ship in bottle stuff.
This is a building that clears the bar by a mile to give a world class institution a worthy new home. It has virtually no external walls but seven different party walls. Yet this is by no means ‘mere’ interior architecture. Rather it is the culmination of a working lifetime spent by the architect refining the detailing of galleries, houses and restaurants to create a deeply satisfying series of interlocking spaces.
Entered through the Cockerell façade, the eye is drawn to a day-lit space beyond. This central atrium, modest in plan yet dramatic in section, rises through six floors and provides excellent light quality even at the lower ground level, while avoiding levels that could damage exhibits and the pellucid light washing down the atrium bathing polished plaster walls, has almost surreal quality.
A subtly curved staircase cascades down one wall, stepping forward as it descends to give a three dimensional form of originality and great effect, appearing as if from an Escher drawing. The stairs have raked solid balustrades, set at a different angle to that of the glazed balustrading within, giving an orange peel effect that adds to the beguiling composition.
The route navigates its way through a clever interleaving and interconnection of double and single height spaces that creates a rich spatial journey. Complementing the clarity and ingenuity of the architecture, Stephen Greenberg (himself an architect) and his team at Metaphor have brilliantly curated the displays and graphics based on a theme of ‘Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time.’ The theme is reflected in the architecture, with carefully controlled (though in fact seemingly random) visual relationships set up between items in the collection.
The Museum Director, Dr Christopher Brown asserts:
'This is Rick Mather’s finest building to date, and I have no doubt it’ll be recognised very soon as one of the outstanding museum buildings of the 21st century'.
He is right, this is indeed a world-class building.