Thursday, 9 June 2016

Museum of London design shortlist: from luxury boutique to history chic

Smithfield market will be the museum’s new home, but which architectural vision should shape its future: the eye-catching one, the ghostly one, the corporate one … or the one that rings alarm bells?

Marooned on a grim roundabout in the City of London since the 1970s, cloistered away behind forbidding grey walls, the Museum of London is finally making a bid for freedom. Six shortlisted designs have been unveiled for its new home in Smithfield, where it hopes to breathe much needed life into three derelict Victorian market buildings to the west of the thriving meat market, with a project set to open by 2021.

Developers and conservationists have long waged war over the future of the 25,000 square metre site, which includes the majestic iron-framed hall of the general market, along with the former Fish Market and a cold store known as the Red House – as well as a working underground rail line that the museum hopes to incorporate into its plans.
The buildings were saved from evisceration by a bloated commercial development in 2014. The challenge is now how to insert a museum that boasts the largest urban history collection in the world (and wants to double its visitors to 2m a year) without destroying the magic of the place.
Little detail has been revealed about the shortlisted schemes, which will go on public exhibition from 10 June to 5 August with a winner chosen by an expert panel later this summer. Take a look at the entries below.

‘Victorian meets modern’ – Bjarke Ingels Group

Featuring a three-storey apse-like vitrine cantilevered out over the street, BIG’s design trumpets the new museum in one of the more effusive entries of the bunch – as expected from the young Danish architect who specialises in poppy, eye-catching gestures (and who has just unveiled this year’s Serpentine pavilion). The vertical shop window provides a bold entrance beacon for an interior that promises to amplify the existing “architectural cross-section of the city: Victorian meets modern, brick meets cast-iron, slate meets glass.” Interesting to see how they might juggle the tension between their cartoonish tendencies and the “nooks and crannies, raw beauty and quirky charm” of the site.

‘An opportunity to open up’ – Caruso St John

The hardest of the projects to decode from the information provided, Caruso St John say they have “looked critically at the existing historic building fabric and proposed preserving the best parts and transforming others.” Rendered with an intentional vagueness, the scheme seems to comprise the insertion of discrete pavilions within the space of the market hall, in the architects’ trademark pastel palette. It would no doubt be clean, polite and well-tailored, but might it all feel a bit insipid and at odds with the messy, earthy character of the place?

‘A rich visitor experience’ – Diener & Diener

Crowned with a ghostly wireframe reconstruction of the cupola that once towered above the corner of the General Market, the Swiss architects’ entry is one of the more poetic, although it’s quite tricky to tell what they’re planning to do beyond this rooftop apparition. The ground floor appears to have been stripped back and whitewashed in a way that makes it look a bit like a luxury fashion boutique, while the permanent and temporary exhibitions seem destined to inhabit the array of subterranean spaces, “bringing the collection and the physicality of these spaces together in a rich visitor experience”. Intriguing, but could it end up being a bit beige?

‘A delicate adaptation, not an act of force’ – Lacaton & Vassal

Claiming to take inspiration from Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, incorporating mobile partitions and retractable seating, the French architects Lacaton & Vassal’s proposal appears to be the most light-handed of the lot – no bad thing in such a rich context. Lacaton & Vassal are masters of subtle intervention, as they have demonstrated in their deft archaeological approach to the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, peeling back the layers of the building’s history with dazzling beauty. As the architects put it: “It is not an act of force but a delicate adaptation to make the most of what already exists.” Promising to amplify the character of the jumbled complex with a series of surgical interventions, it is the most promising of the six schemes.

‘A democratic meeting place’ – Stanton Williams

Stanton Williams propose to make the most of the existing building’s majestic domed roof, carving out a sweeping spiral staircase beneath it to draw visitors down into the lower levels. Their scheme claims to be an “antimuseum”, with openings to the street on all sides rather than a single front door, to create “an arena for public life, performance, installation, debate, with places for rest and reflection”. Emphatically modern additions are designed to contrast with the historic fabric, in a similar manner to the practice’s conversion of the Kings Cross granary building into Central Saint Martins art college. But, just like Saint Martins, it looks as if it might end up feeling a little too corporate.

‘A treasure trove of objects’ – Studio Milou

Alarm bells might sound when you hear of Studio Milou’s plans for a “new showcase building” that will “envelop” two of the existing Victorian structures. Intended to create a landmark entrance, the new building will incorporate a giant mirror to reflect the facade of the Red House cold store, while a “crown of glass showcases” will present the collection as an accumulation of stories and experiences, “a treasure trove of objects flowing from the city’s earliest history to its present”. The most heavy-handed of the shortlisted schemes, the images also feature that tired trope of a stepped wooden seating tribune, an interior with all the character of a departure lounge.

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