Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
The British Museum can explore, examine and extract information from its collections better than ever before following completion of the final stages of its World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC), designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP). Delicately but confidently inserted into a long, narrow plot at the north west of the museum’s Bloomsbury campus, five linked pavilions in steel, glass and stone have a simple, even elegant form that belies the complexity of their function and organisation. Last Friday’s press event revealed the result, and my exploration of the complex with a select group of attendees in conversation with practice partner Graham Stirk and project architect John McElgunn showed how adroitly RSHP had handled the competing demands inherent in the brief to achieve it.
Tasked with addressing the multiple shortcomings of the museum’s technical research and support spaces that had developed over time as well as providing a large, state-of-the-art exhibition space, RSHP initially developed a scheme whereby five pavilions, each identical in plan, would be used to accommodate these elements. Three pavilions, placed in line and linked by service cores subsumed within the main envelope, would generate the 70-metre-long exhibition gallery. An almost industrial space with highly-loaded solid concrete floor, multiply-penetrated ceiling for lighting rigs and so on and direct access to loading bays, it was more akin to a black box theatre than a traditional gallery – the museum’s Carolyn Marsden-Smith has strikingly described it as permitting her team to create “an immersive environment that would transport visitors to another world, another time.” A fourth pavilion would project to the north and contain a large-object conservation studio, whilst a fifth to the south formed the scientific section. Laboratories would sit atop each pavilion, lit by controlled daylight through glazed facades and rooflights.
This first iteration was however rejected at planning due to concerns over its massing and proximity to the neighbouring Georgian terraces. RSHP’s response was to slim down four of the pavilions slightly but also – crucially – bury the fifth, southern pavilion below ground, lowering its rooflight to a point level with a new garden. The block thus became an atrium pouring daylight into the offices and spaces below via glass discs inset into the concrete floor panels of a mezzanine level. It was an inspired move that secured permission from Camden council and began the five-year journey whose end point was reached on Friday, although the exhibition gallery was first shown to the public this spring with the Vikings show.
In the final plan detached service towers holding lifts, stairs and ducting connect each pavilion grouping with each other and the existing museum. They are reticently clad in horizontal strips of Portland stone, very much in reference to John Burnet’s imposing 1914 King Edward VII block alongside rather than in deference; RSHP’s stone is fossil-bearing roach rather than ashlar, and is aligned horizontally, perpendicular to Burnet’s fluted columns. And as though anxious to emphasise that such material is non-loadbearing, these strips are clearly attached to a metal substrate and do not meet. Open corners are achieved by attachment of the planes of stone in a pinwheel plan, something that becomes apparent only after careful study.
The development of this cladding was crucial in establishing a visual language for the new block that aligned it with the institutional rather than the domestic buildings on site, but in a way that “didn’t signal an entrance”, as Stirk put it. It was also vital not to compete with the Great Russell Street axis. It is a subtle touch, one that later emerges as typical of a project where many of the Richard Rogers motifs are present yet heavily disguised. The colour palette, for example, is sober – black-painted steel, frosty silver glass, pale grey Portland stone – with primary tones confined to fire doors. Whilst it would be flip to suggest this appears more in line with the softly-spoken, Northern English-raised Stirk and his dark blue Nehru suits rather than the garrulous, Italian-born Rogers and his famously bright attire, it is a pleasing thought nevertheless. Indeed, more gentle amusement can be found in the publicity image of Stirk sitting atop a workbench at the centre of a cluster of articulated extraction hoses, touching one fondly like some technological Noah. With at least one critic noting the machine-like nature of the new centre beneath the stone, it might also be tempting to view Stirk as the custodian of a space station, tending his droids.
It is though in a cross section through the pavilions from the highest level down to the lowest that the ingenuity of the practice’s response to an intricate, almost contradictory brief is really revealed.
Two layers of studios for the examination of objects sit at the top, provided with indirect daylighting through a façade of fascinating textured glass ‘planks’ slipped into metal frames. With a veiny translucency that – marvellously aptly – recalls old parchment, they are intended to allow glimpses into the building from the outside and so bring animation to the exterior and might be thought to recall the glass blocks of inter-war Modernism. On a gloomy day the effect from the street was more reminiscent of a misted-up car windscreen, but fortunately images taken at dusk or with helmeted workers standing on the maintenance gangways that separate the inner and outer leaves do show the potential.
One floor dedicated entirely to plant comes next. Allowing access to the myriad services that feed the studios above and the exhibition space below without disturbing either, it is a quote from Louis Kahn’s Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building in Philadelphia of 1960, where an exactly comparable arrangement was employed. Kahn’s famous concept of servant and served spaces is an acknowledged influence on Rogers and Stirk easily volunteers Kahn’s name when describing the new scheme in Bloomsbury. He also explained to me how this floor brings structural rigidity, permitting the column-free space of the exhibition gallery directly below. This is level with the Great Court for an easy visitor experience; a ‘logistics hub’ floor lies underneath it, tying in to the museum’s existing internal roadway. Below this are no fewer than three further floors of storage space for the museum’s collection. Heavy, solidly columned and stretching along the full length of the block, these currently dark and empty spaces will eventually be filled with a multi-million-pound roller racking system and thousands upon thousands of objects, McElgunn confidently stating that it should be seven years before it is full.
The fourth and fifth pavilions follow the same basic principles, but have very different natures. The bright, triple-height box that is the large stone-work studio on the ground floor of the northern pavilion has crystal-clear glazed walls and vast doors that give directly onto the new exhibition gallery by way of a short linking corridor, off of which stands a 3-tonne capacity goods lift that serves all floors. Though fully glazed, including the doors (a Rogers practice now common everywhere), it usually carries “boxes… with a fantastic view,” as Stirk quipped during the tour. The studio is also served by an even more impressive piece of mechanical handling equipment: the museum’s astonishing truck lift, sitting off of Great Russell Street. Designed and engineered in Italy, two modes of operation are possible. First, its roof – paved with granite so that, at rest, it lies flush with the ground and is invisible – can act as an adjustable platform so that lorries can drive up to or indeed into the new exhibition gallery (by means of an immense up-and-over door discreetly incorporated into the glazed façade) and be slightly lowered or raised as needed to give level access to any display platform. Secondly, the entire unit rises several metres to reveal the lift car proper, which can swallow an entire 42-tonne lorry and drop it slowly down the full three-storey depth of the new basement, a total travel of nearly 20 metres (in a later email to me, McElgunn says that “it is absolutely amazing. When it come out of the ground it is as big as the two small terraced houses next door at 1a Montague Place.”)
The receiving areas are equipped with a lifting beam and can, like the stores, be traversed by forklifts, which match the size of the lift and also the volume of cargo plane holds. The combined system allows the easy get-in of objects in daytime without having to negotiate the museum’s torturous main entrance, steps and public circulation route, the only previous option for any and every item needed to be shown in the temporary space converted within the old Round Reading Room. The final pavilion is its own revelation, especially when emerging from the gloom of the deep basement; though on the same level, the area below the ground-level glass roof is a delightful, bright space, even on a dull day. Here science serves the collections and, by extension, academia and the public, with electron microscopes and X-ray machines alongside meeting rooms and offices.
Addressing the press here on Friday, museum director Neil MacGregor explained how the new centre will increase the “research and conservation capacity and skills potential” of his staff and expand the object loan programme. In response to a question about whether other institutions might take advantage of the facilities, MacGregor explained that there would be more opportunities to receive interns from those places and give training.
McElgunn had earlier confirmed that limited physical public access to the conservation centre is envisaged through the medium of tours, pointing out viewing windows into some of the rooms from the corridors we walked through, but I wonder whether the patently physical WCEC addition might not also facilitate expansion of the museum concept into the digital realm – opening the box in every sense, as it were. The ability to more closely examine the museum’s treasures could easily drive enhanced online content, whether live video relays of conservation activities, electronic versions of the excellent technical bulletin magazines published by the National Gallery (which MacGregor used to run) or ultra-detailed 3D portraits of museum items that can be examined, rotated and zoomed to an almost microscopic level at home. MacGregor also announced a consultation later in the year to inform the future of the Round Reading Room now that exhibitions have their own dedicated space, but what of the future of the new WCEC itself? It might seem odd to ask this on the very day it is presented as new and cutting edge, but history has shown that many such facilities become outdated after just a few years. Can RSHP’s well-known tenet of flexibility help?
Certainly it appears evident that the team has worked incredibly hard to understand the needs of the museum at a fundamental level, well before any design solution was proposed. In this one is reminded of the exceptional effort made for Lloyd’s of London nearly 40 years ago, when the practice provided the institution with a strategy first and a building second. Of course such a “bespoke” approach, as Stirk calls it, can at the same time militate against true flexibility, but here again that seems to have been considered. As well as the many efforts to introduce it across the floors for current use, from furniture on wheels to accessible ceilings and those maintenance walkways, McElgunn explained that the end walls of the new exhibition gallery are actually glazed and both he and the museum staff are keen to explore the possibility of a day-lit display – possibly of sculpture – to exploit this. In fact Stirk goes much further, explaining to me that the centre has been constructed to accommodate equipment not yet designed and to allow a future director to open it up or indeed change its use completely.
But coming back to the present, the WCEC has been thought through at the macro and the micro levels. Just as its plant space serves the new exhibition gallery, so the centre as a whole is the servant of the wider museum. Already permitting original Smirke rooms to be reclaimed from storage duties, the careful alignment of levels plus its structural openness also have the potential to beneficially disrupt what Stirk refers to as the “series of annular rings” that have arisen through the museum’s piecemeal growth over the centuries and limited visitor movement around the complex as a result. The variation of the spaces created is impressive. Connected, separated, restricted, open, dark, light; the new areas embrace all of these oppositions as a reflection of the tasks being performed within them. Throughout, the architecture is crisp, minimal and precise. Many different textures – of material, of light, of history – are on show and at no point does it dominate – instead it merely (but vitally) enables. As one who particularly enjoys those building types that combine the mechanical with the architectural – newspaper printing plants, mechanical car parks, computerised repositories, mail sorting offices – I found it absorbing to encounter external refinement and internal technology so closely allied.
To see RHSP create such a building is satisfying, especially when they remain widely known for dazzling colours and striking shapes which, whilst always accompanied by a convincing narrative, sometimes seem wilful. Here, at last, is a place where their exposed services and ruthlessly functional aesthetic seem thoroughly at home – indeed, at work, for the benefit of all of us. It is a portal into the past.
Posted 8 December 2020; with thanks to John McElgunn and the press teams at the BM and RSHP. This piece also appears – in a slightly different form – as a blog post on 13 July 2014, following my participation in the WCEC’s press view on 11 July 2014
The British Museum from the air, focussing on the T-shaped WCEC site that slips between John Burnet’s King Edward VII block and the original building (Google)
This cross section through the WCEC, looking in roughly the same direction as the aerial image, shows the long exhibition gallery at ground floor level, the stores below and the sunken fifth pavillion (BM/RSHP)
Portland roach stone and textured glass, both in metal frames, clad the exterior, including the stair and lift towers. Burnet's work lies to the left
From 'inside' the buildings the clear glass of the service towers is seen against - and allows, in turn, to be seen - the London stock brick of the original buiding
Typical of the new facilities is the main level conservation studio, flooded with daylight and highly serviced (Paul Raftery)
Graham Stirk (centre right) and John McElgunn (centre left, partly obscured) led the RSHP team for the WCEC project