News Column

ARCHITECTURE: Fine, but for one small thing ...: British Museum extension London, WC1

June 29, 2014

Rowan Moore



They've got the mall. They've got the food court. Now they've got the multiplex. This, if it is a harsh way to describe the British Museum's attempts to update itself over the last two decades, with the help of the most famous architects in the land and hundreds of millions in generous donations, nonetheless reflects what's going on. Like large cultural institutions everywhere, the museum finds itself dealing with similar pressures to those of commercial players in the fields of leisure and entertainment - such as ever-growing numbers of visitors and the desire for still more - and it reaches for similar solutions.

The mall and the food court were provided by Norman Foster's great court project, completed in 2000. Here the vast centre of Sir Robert Smirke's 1840s buildings was unclogged of the British Library's former bookstacks and covered with an elegant roof, the main purpose of which magnificence was to create a zone for milling, browsing, munching and gulping.

The multiplex is the 1,200m2 exhibition space provided by the museum's new pounds 135m extension, by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, the practice created by Richard Rogers. Its purpose is to house crowd-pulling shows such as the Vikings exhibition which inaugurated the space in March. As current practice favours, it is a black box, a neutral space whose lighting and layout can be adapted to suit as many different installations as possible. And as in a modern cinema auditorium, the architecture disappears to give maximum attention to the show.

There are many things to like about RSHP's building, which includes conservation workshops, laboratories and storage, due to be completed shortly, as well as the exhibition space. Externally its thin horizontal slats of milky cast glass and pale stone nicely balance the hefty verticals of the giant Ionic half-columns of its neighbour, Sir John Burnet's extension to the museum of 1907-14. The fears of local preservationists, who opposed the project as "gross" and "inappropriate" when it was first proposed, have not been borne out. A stair tower, a calm cousin of the boisterous vertical circulation that Rogers used on the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyd's building, does its job nicely.

The new building is delicate, refined and crafted. Where in the past Rogers sought to embrace onrushing crowds with wide openings and transparent walls, this is politely opaque, which suits the studious, introspective world of conservation. The strongest hint of inner life comes with the vertical slots that run up the corners of the stair tower. We are promised that the soon-to-open conservation facilities, the largest element of the brief, will be "state of the art". The black box for exhibitions is what the museum asked for, and is good of its kind.

What is this, the public part of the new building, lacking? Two things, and both apply more to the ensemble created by the two biggest names of what used to be called hi-tech architecture than to the Rogers building alone. The first is a strange distribution of space, the second an inattention to the cultural complexities of the modern museum. Which if it sounds like an abstruse point has palpable effects.

On the matter of space, the museum had an extraordinary abundance of the stuff. They had the great court, and the huge round reading room. They also had the King's library, which occupies much of the east wing of Smirke's building and was purposely designed for the exceptional collection assembled by George III which was relocated when the British Library opened in St Pancras. Hundreds of yards of shelves were left behind, listed, fine and untouchable, requiring the invention of a slightly unconvincing "enlightenment gallery" to fill the space.

What to do with the great gasometer of knowledge that was the reading room remains a Fermat's last theorem of museology, an almost unsolvable problem that is not addressed by the heavy crust of limestone that Foster wrapped around its light structure. The great court, as above, ends up housing mundane uses. Meanwhile, despite these quantities of emptiness, the RSHP extension struggles to squeeze into its corner of the museum's estate: much of it is underground, and the architects had to fiddle with slivers one metre wide after objections that they were blocking the light to existing spaces.

Most of all the new exhibition space, which should be one of the high points of the museum's cultural experience, feels compressed, its lobbies cramped, its position obscure. Having crossed the cathedral-sized coffee shop that is the great court, you get to a gallery which seems to have the status of a broom cupboard.

As for those cultural complexities, they turn on the difference between a museum and shop. If both involve the presentation of objects to the public gaze, and with it some enticement, there is still a large difference between the wonder, reflection and enlightenment that an exhibit is meant to stimulate, and the simple gratification offered by a product. If one opens up the imagination, the other is about closing something down.

If shopping has to be a large part of modern museums, both because it earns revenue and because a lot of visitors like it, it should then be a crucial role of the architecture to mediate the relationships between retail and exhibition. Each requires its own kind of space, its own atmosphere and frame of mind, and the change from one to another is a matter for design. The contrast of experiences does not have to be a problem, but can add to the richness of the place.

The composite Foster-Rogers British Museum does not offer this kind of articulation. Instead there is the great court, whose stony monumentality speaks of culture even as it offers commerce, from which you pass casually into the exhibition space. You go from the bright, plasticised, shadowless light of the great court, created by the computer-designed treatment of the roof glass, into the black box. Such transitions from light to dark can be the stuff of architecture, but it feels accidental. Here prestigious architecture is used to smooth and deny difference. It makes normal something that is anything but, the transition from the everyday present to artefacts thousands of years old.

There is an unwillingness, perhaps more the client's than the architects', fully to address the extraordinary places and uses at their disposal, and their complexity and contradictions. The question, admittedly difficult, of the reading room was fudged, as was the King's library, with the result that there is a void, wrapped in a void, with another void to the side, even as the core business of the museum is shunted into a corner. The result is in many ways fine. It does its job, and has good materials and details. But it could have been very much richer.

Captions:

RSHP's 'delicate, refined and crafted' British Museum extension, with building materials still outside last week, as the project approaches its conclusion. Photograph by Antonio Olmos for the Observer


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Source: Observer (UK)


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