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SS Great Britain and Historic Dockyard, Bristol
Architect: Alec French Architects
Client: SS Great Britain Trust
Structural engineer: Fenton Holloway; Arup
Services engineer: WSP Group
Project manager: Capita Symonds
Contract Value: £11,500,000
Date of completion: May 2005
This project relies on a powerful conceit: that of approaching the historic ship in its original listed dry dock, then walking down a stair that leads you through the meniscus of the water, into a dehumidified chamber that prevents corrosion of the ship's iron hull.
The iron plates and timber cladding of the hull were decaying through a combination of atmospheric humidity and the salts absorbed by the timber cladding. Technical investigations established that the decay could be arrested if the humidity level could be kept below 20%, and that the problem only existed below the original water level. It was therefore decided to provide a glass deck at the original water level, which also happens to coincide with the top of the walls of the listed dry dock in which the ship was originally built, and in which she now sits. In an inspired move, this glass deck has been filled with a few inches of sea water from the adjacent River Severn, so that when seen on approach the ship appears to float once more, but when seen close to the pattern of the glass can be clearly read. The effect as seen from outside is intriguing and successful; however, the effect as seen from below is even more delightful, with a beautiful quality of light thrown onto the rusty ironwork of the hull and onto the elegant steelwork of the new roof by sunlight filtered through the surface of the moving water. Visitors now descend via a lift and suitably nautical stairways into the space between the hull with its untouched red rust, and the original stone walls of the dock, stained in places with green verdigris, past stainless steel ducts and nozzles blowing de-humidified air up the sides of the hull. The contours of the hull are extremely elegant, and can be fully appreciated, together with the rich textures of the cladding, during the circumambulation of the hull in this virtual sub-marine realm.
The project demonstrates that heritage attractions can avoid the pitfalls so often associated with the opening of historic buildings and sites to the public if carried out with sufficient imagination and flair. The restoration of the ship and her return to the dry-dock in which she was built make a unique exhibition, but so magical and beguiling are the water-roof and the dock/hull space below that whole experience produces a delightful moment of architecture as metaphor that is legible and accessible to all.
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