The M-shed, the new community museum for Bristol, is housed in a refurbished 1951 steel-framed shed on Bristol's Floating Harbour. Originally a transit shed for storing goods being loaded on and off ships, is a two storey 190 metre long building. A unique structure, beautifully adapted to its utilitarian purpose - but not for a brief that called for a modern close-controlled museum environment on a tight budget. The challenge for LAB was how to create a modern museum experience of the present, whilst preserving the character of the existing building.
Central to LAB's proposal has been the creation of two dramatic foyer spaces. These two distinctly different volumes act as orientation spaces, break-out spaces and additional exhibition spaces, providing the client with great flexibility.
The dramatic 15m high Main Foyer with its distinctive red and grey steel staircase is both the main entrance and the main address of the museum. The staircase allows many opportunities to pause and linger and take advantage of the views over Bristol and across the foyer space. Glass panels in the metal balustrades provide the opportunity to enjoy the dramatic views from different eye levels.
The West Foyer houses the turquoise-coloured staircase with timber handrails, and is a smaller, more intimate space. The ascending draws the visitors up and terminates below a roof-light, whereas the descending reveals the distinctive views over the harbour-side through the silhouette of the signature crane.
Externally the interventions are more measured and deal with the scale of the existing structural frame.
The North façade works at two scales: from across the harbour and from the immediate quayside. Across the harbour the building appears as a low two-storey structure, but once on the quayside the deceptively large scale of 10 meter high frame is surprisingly revealed. Visitors approach the entrance at a very oblique angle from the quayside. Two bays are set-back with triple height inclined glazing to clearly indicate the new museum entrance from this approach. The sliding doors have been fully refurbished and many motorised - they now open and close each day with the museum just as they used to when the transit shed was in operation.
The South facade is an alternative museum frontage. Glass planks with three degrees of transparency (opaque, semi transparent and transparent) depending upon the program emphasise the verticality and provide a module appropriate to the scale of the building.
The sliding doors and the glass planks are treated as rain-screens, behind which is a composite panel climatic wall. Together with a highly efficient and sustainable displacement air handling system they provide the museum with the requisite close control museum environment.
From inception through to completion the museum has been a true community project engaging a plethora of individuals and stakeholder groups. The workshop and tarnished, used to garage the trains and maintain the boats and cranes by the volunteers, have both been relocated from the bowels of the museum to a prominent position on the quayside. The design of the museum is eminently suited to the innovative curatorial approach that embodies a community outreach program and has already attracted three times the expected number of visitors (an astonishing 750,000 visitors in 9 months).