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
The mall and the food court were provided by
The multiplex is the 1,200m2 exhibition space provided by the museum's new pounds 135m extension, by
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
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
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.
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.
RSHP's 'delicate, refined and crafted'
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