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British bulldog

Clash Architects has made a compelling new entrance to the Churchill War Rooms with this tough bronze shell, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Richard Davies

A year ago, you could have easily walked down Westminster’s King Charles Street without spotting the entrance to the Churchill War Rooms. Originally built as the prime minister’s bunker during the Second World War, it was later adapted as the Churchill Museum, which took the documentary style favoured by many war museums. Its makeshift sandbag construction, erected at the foot of Clive Steps in 1993, might have seemed odd, but it was neither eye-catching nor draw-dropping. As a congested threshold to the HOK-designed Imperial War Museum underworld below, it was barely memorable as architecture.

Although concealed subterranean strata such as this is what really makes cities like London, it’s hardly surprisingly that the Imperial War Museum felt the need for something more prepossessing. When the museum upgraded its aspirations to something beyond a modest refurb, its chosen architect, Clash Architects, started talking to the geometrics arm of Price & Myers. This was firstly because the project was to be technically ambitious and secondly, because their expertise in monitoring buildability and cost, using CATIA parametric solid modelling software, was invaluable.

English Heritage and Westminster’s planning departments were very much on the case, as one might expect with HM Treasury and George Gilbert Scott’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office next door. There was a restriction on the height of the new entrance and Clash was only allowed to fix the structure to the four existing connection points; two at the front and two at the back. New flashing lines, where the insertion met existing construction, were a no-no. The existing lines had to be retained.

As it turned out, English Heritage was ‘broadly supportive’, as they sometimes say, whereas Westminster told practice director Peter Clash, ‘Don’t bother, it’s not going to happen’. Westminster was quite taken with the idea of a Portland stone-clad entrance, which would have been camouflaged by its context. Clash, however, favoured a contrasting material, initially zinc, but finally bronze. This was more economical because it could be welded to the stainless steel skeleton frame, an artistically unexceptionable choice in its locale, in good company with the statue of Clive of India that overlooks the new entrance and Landseer’s lions down the road in Trafalgar Square.

On a technical level, bronze cladding was not an easy option, especially for the unusual faceted geometry of the abstracted shell-like form that Clash proposed. Yet it somehow melds Churchill’s dogged personality with the quaint but rugged aesthetic of war machinery that ranges from Sherman tanks, pillboxes and WWII bombers into a single compelling object, with a complementary faceted antechamber within, much lighter and more spacious than its predecessor.

It was the subtleties of the project’s construction that kept Clash on a four-month vigil as this bronze beast took up position in its Portland stone setting. There are different shades and gradations of bronze that enhance the form of the insertion. Great care was lavished on the detailed construction of the shell, which is part folded and part stitch-welded to its supporting skeleton. This minimised the risk of the bronze overheating, which would have caused distortion and affected its patination. All this TLC has born dividends. The new entrance looks and feels like it’s here to stay and you certainly couldn’t miss it as you strolled through St James’s Park.

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for the entrance to the Churchill War Rooms

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