Contemporary extension to UK's National Maritime Museum opens on UNESCO Site
On Thursday 14th July, the polished Sammy Ofer Wing of the National Maritime Museum (NMM) in London opened to the public. Ruefully described as ‘one of the most challenging sites conceivable’ by Julian Weyer, Partner at C. F. Møller and lead architect on the scheme, the NMM is a Grade I listed building cupped in a leafy UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This lengthy project was ignited five years ago with a ‘worthy but perhaps rather unexciting’ brief to extend the existing Museum’s archive and retrieval system, and was spurred on by the appointment of Dr Kevin Fewster as Director of the NMM and a very generous donation of £20m by international shipping magnate and philanthropist Sammy Ofer. Without this charitable gift the extension could not have been realised.
Weyer truthfully admitted: “What we are facing here is a completely impossible dilemma for an architect’s point of view because it emerged from the process this was an opportunity to give the museum a new face towards the park, a new entrance, and at the same time it became clear that to make this a successful addition to such a strong building complex it needed to be subordinated.”
The constraints imposed by the site’s heritage status forced the extension underground, with a cavernous space 10m deep, 35m wide and 55m long excavated from beneath the main foyer for temporary exhibitions. Mark Hammond of executive architects Purcell Miller Tritton relates the oddities uncovered during this invasive dig: “We have come across something like twenty bodies of seamen – some of which were reinterred at the end of the site, others needed to be examined and removed to be reburied elsewhere – the remains of a Tudor road, which we always thought was going to be here, and also on this site in the Victorian era was a (heated) swimming pool which also needed to be carefully investigated and recorded before it was removed.”
Originally the sole reason for this 1,625 sq m expansion, the Caird Library, Archive and Reading Room are a series of softly-lit study spaces and efficient storage units which more than double the NMM’s existing library capacity and enable the majority of its collection (the largest collection of maritime artefacts in the world) to be housed onsite. Between 2 and 3 million books, manuscripts, charts, journals and other archival materials are now located at the NMM in an extensive storage unit that totals almost 9 linear kilometres of shelving. Swift and simple to use, the efficient system enables academics and visitors to the NMM to peruse the collection at their leisure in a quiet environment delicately illuminated by wide panels of glass.
Internally the exhibition spaces are artificially lit, with the permanent exhibition space – entitled the Voyagers Gallery – located directly opposite the main entranceway and encapsulating a myriad of treasures enlightening visitors on the lives of those who lived and died on the seas. A cascading platform which runs the length of this room is illuminated with scores of naval-inspired expressions which enliven the static plane and give it the illusion of waves in motion.
An adjacent Compass Lounge encourages visitors to explore the NMM’s archives through interactive display boards, using touch-sensitive navigation tools to scan an impressive array of maps, charts, diagrams, artefacts, and oceanic paintings.
On crossing the NMM’s newly inaugurated threshold (which is now to act as the main entranceway to the entire museum) and entering the light-rich foyer, what grabs one’s attention is a gaping void in the floor. A great glass elevator and similarly modern staircase lead the way to a basement exhibition space marked for temporary displays, currently housing an intriguing installation by United Visual Artists and Cape Farewell entitled High Arctic which is well worth a visit. Visitors are invited to take a UV torch into the darkened room to examine thousands of creamy columns hidden in the blackness, each representing a real glacier in Svalbard.
Despite the lack of natural light within the prime exhibition spaces, the design team have gone to great lengths to encourage the sun’s rays to penetrate the extension’s walls. A handful of protruding light bays have been inserted above the central foyer to draw light in directly above the initial depression into the lower temporary gallery, and great walls of glass at the front of the extension allow the weak London sunshine to infiltrate the space. The effect is surprisingly efficient yet lacks the intensity of Rick Mather Architects/BDP's neighbouring Neptune Court scheme from 1999 which illuminates an internal covered plaza and places the remainder of the NMM’s exhibition spaces in the shade.
Light was not the end goal for the Sammy Ofer Wing however. During exhaustive early development work it was discovered that a high percentage of visitors to the neighbouring Royal Observatory were either unable to access the adjoining NMM or were unaware that they could do so. Landscape designers Churchman Landscape Architects have opened up the external space, introducing a broad walkway linking the NMM to the Observatory both visually and geographically, and inserting a 160m-long stepped rill as a subtle reference to maritime culture.
Stonework specialist Szerelmey was responsible for the sensitive Portland Stone cladding and paving, working in close collaboration with the architects to complete a responsive, contemporary addition to this classic Unesco World Heritage Site. Andy Whiterod of Szerelmey explains: “The Portland Stone is particularly striking and it is used on the original Museum. I believe it was the natural choice for the architects who required a modern finish that was in keeping with the area’s surroundings.”
As Julian Weyer divulged in an interview with WAN: “It is hard to choose a favourite part of the new wing but what I feel is most important here is that museum and park have become one which makes a grand difference. The archives and the creation of new exhibition space are fantastically important here but the really big change that people will feel – even if they don’t enter all the interior changes to the museum – is that park and museum now blend together.” And so the design team’s work is done.