Nestled against the quay in Greenwich is one of the last three surviving clipper ships with composite construction in the world, encased in a sparkling case with complex steel latticework arching over its form. Architects Grimshaw and engineers Buro Happold have been delicately restoring and preserving historic gem The Cutty Sark over the past eight years, recapturing the rich splendour of this British masterpiece and suspending her above a public exhibition for all to see. The completed Cutty Sark Museum was opened by the Queen on 25th April 2012 as a gift to the monarch from HRH The Duke of Edinburgh for her Jubilee.
Built in 1869 for the Jock Willis shipping line as a speeding tea clipper, The Cutty Sark only completed a handful of journeys on the tea trade before switching to the transportation of wool from Australia to the UK. Following this, she was passed between hands and trades until she was granted Grade I listed status alongside the HMS Belfast and SS Robin, and renovations began on her rare wooden hull and iron framework back in 2004. Havoc struck when the ship was engulfed in a raging fire during renovation works, causing catastrophic damage to what was left of her original form. This set the project’s completion back a total of three years and created a number of additional challenges for engineers Buro Happold.
John Solomon, Head of Conservation and Refurbishment at Buro Happold, explains: “Following the fire, our role on the project changed from one of conservation and public access improvement to a rescue project for this important and well-loved slice of history. The first step for Buro Happold’s CARE accredited conservation engineer was to set up and chair a steering group of experts to develop and agree the conservation strategy. Essentially the conservation work involved complete dismantling of the ship in order to fully expose her wrought iron frame for repair. This necessitated removal of all of the masts and rig, all deck furniture and planning and all 600 hull planks along with her bow and stern timbers.”
After my visit to the majestic new museum I spoke with Steve Brown, Project Principal at Buro Happold to gain insight into his involvement with the scheme. It’s unusual for Buro Happold to take on a project of this nature as Brown explained: “This was a new challenge for me. I’d never worked on a ship before so it was a new challenge. It’s so different to working with buildings because The Cutty Sark has no right angles or lines of symmetry. Buildings are usually square!”
One of the first things Brown did was convene with old friend and colleague Tim Beckett of Beckett Rankine, a marine consulting engineer, to gain a better understanding of the historic vessel. A project of this type is not only unusual for Buro Happold but also for many other organisations involved in the scheme, including English Heritage, who were on hand to protect The Cutty Sark under its Grade I listing.
Aside from the breathtaking structural latticework that defines the ceiling of the main exhibition space at The Cutty Sark Museum, the most impressive design feature - and feat of engineering - is that the aged ship is suspended above the restaurant and events area. As Tim Kelly, Associate Structures at Buro Happold, details: “Probably the single biggest challenge of the entire project was the actual process of raising all 963 tonnes of the tea clipper three metres into the air to permanently suspend her within the dry dock. The technical challenge of providing an elegant solution to lifting this ‘fragile old lady’ into the air shouldn’t be underestimated. A carefully phased lifting and un-propping operation ensured she was safely transferred from her previous support system onto the new permanent supporting steelwork. And we only had one chance to succeed in achieving this - once the process had started there was no going back…”
The result is that the ship seems weightless. It hovers above the resting diners and interactive displays - including the world’s largest collection of ship’s figureheads - like an oversized toy ship, waiting to be launched into a bathtub. What was left of the original hull has been restored to its gleaming ‘copper-bottom’ of muntz metal (a mix of copper and bronze) which, should The Cutty Sark be launched on a new adventure, would glide effortlessly through the water and reduce the likelihood of barnacles attaching themselves to her streamlined surface.
To find your way into this cavernous event space, which gives the impression of standing on the sea bed, you must first enter the hold and work your way through stacks of ancient tea chests bearing historical references and snippets of information on former crew members and perilous sea quests. The renovation here is exquisite and perfectly attune to the rich history of The Cutty Sark, who at the time of her completion was one of the world’s fastest tea clippers. Low ceilings and exposed wooden planks provide a believable backdrop as the engaging exhibition transports visitors back in time through light-box displays, short documentary films and glass cases of historical artefacts. This wooden capsule is at once protecting and claustrophobic; a vessel lovingly restored and tastefully modernised to withstand the battering any public museum is destined to receive. As Steve Brown concludes, ‘It’s always worthwhile restoring something of heritage value’.