Ditchling, the setting for the BBC series A Very English Village, is not necessarily the place you expect to find a bold new piece of museum design. But in September 2013, when Adam Richards Architects' refurbishment of Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft was opened to the public, this small village nestled behind the South Downs became a destination on the contemporary architectural map. The addition to the village is appropriately highly crafted inside and out, the limited budget of around £1.1m ingeniously used to re-invigorate existing buildings and add new elements.
In the early 20th Century Ditchling was an important centre for the applied arts; home to the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, it is this that the Museum celebrates. The most well known of these artists is probably sculptor, letterer, typographer and founder of the group Eric Gill, whose name lives on in every computer with the font Gill Sans. Edward Johnston, designer of the London Underground typeface whose capital letters still adorn many tube stations was resident in Ditchling at this time. Muralist at New York's Rockefeller Centre Sir Frank Brangwyn was also part of this group.
The London-based architects appointed to this project (after a limited competition) have completely re-orientated the existing museum. The unremarkable converted Victorian school building that previously held the collection is now the furthest part of the museum from the entrance and is largely hidden from village view. A disused listed oak framed 18th Century Cart Lodge in the adjacent village green has become the new entry point with two new linked pavilions connecting this to the old school. Together with the re-cladding of a small section of the school building, it is these link buildings that are the most striking architectural elements when the complex is viewed externally.
The first of these is clad in local Keymer red tile on both roof and wall, the second in black zinc. Both of these have contemporary glazing details and are without visible gutters, giving the design using these traditional materials a modern twist. The architects have deliberately echoed historic railway platform zig-zag detailing in the zinc cladding, a nod to the nearby railway connection at Hassocks to London that sustained the rural artistic community.
The contemporary glazing and other modern details fitted to the listed Cart Lodge also lift the design above mere restoration and allow new and old to be read together. The inevitable museum shop and café are housed in this entrance area but the space also functions as an exhibit in itself, a floor having been removed to reveal the structure in this now dramatic double height space, with elements of the construction labelled for visitors.
Once admitted to the museum proper, the first of the link buildings contains elegantly detailed steps and a disabled lift, dealing with the change in level across the site. The second is an introductory gallery, again a double height space with a large window and display case - ‘a cabinet of curiosities’ with toilets discreetly hidden behind. The Museum's air-conditioned Collection store is housed within the windowless part of the black zinc building.
These new elements of the museum allow the old part to be utilised for galleries, learning and staff areas. The crafted interior continues into the refurbishment of the old museum with a series of rooms, each having their own character. The architects were also involved in the exhibition design. Of the many beautiful new rooms in the old school, the most remarkable is probably the Print Gallery, which has the feeling of a modern chapel and uses detailing reminiscent of Le Corbusier's Ronchamp - the Stanhope printing press through which the group's work was disseminated acts as the altar.
Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft is open to the public Tuesday - Saturday 11am-5pm and Sundays 12pm-5pm. Call +441273 844744 or visit the museum's website for more information. Alan attended a tour of the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft organised by the RIBA Sussex Branch.