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Treasure chest: The Mary Rose's final resting place

Wilkinson Eyre Architects and Pringle Brandon’s museum will set the Mary Rose in a highly tailored jewellery box

Nobody knows why, on 19 July 1545, Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, sank in the Solent near Portsmouth during a battle with the French fleet. The loss was in one respect fortuitous: when the ship capsized, its starboard side became embedded in clay below the soft sediment of the seabed, enabling it to survive intact. Its port side eroded after its hull filled with silt and what remained of the ship was then protected by a layer of hard clay.

‘Tudor buildings have changed physically over the years, but the Mary Rose and the objects on board are exactly as they were,’ says Chris Wilkinson, director of Wilkinson Eyre Architects, which, with interior architect Pringle Brandon, designed the new Mary Rose Museum. Scheduled to complete in 2016 after a four-year fit-out, it will replace the more ad hoc facility that opened in 1984, two years after the ship was raised from the sea bed. Both the ship and the objects salvaged from it will continue to add to our understanding of Tudor history. Pringle Brandon senior partner Chris Brandon, a diver and marine archaeologist, cites an example: ‘Although the ship sank after the English Reformation, they found rosaries on board,’ he says.

Internal environment

‘It’s now sitting in a cocoon, getting to the final stage of conservation,’ continues Brandon. ‘For nearly 30 years, the wreck of the hull has been preserved in a “hot box” – a sort of insulated rubber bag – and sprayed with polyethylene glycol (PEG), a water-based wax solution.’

The plan is to switch off this spray for the duration of the fit-out phase, allowing the ship to be air-dried in a highly controlled, airtight environment within the hot box, enclosed by the museum’s new external envelope. The hot box itself will be removed in 2016.

Along with the remains of the hull, many of the museum’s 19,000 original objects are light-sensitive, so a carefully orchestrated gradation of light levels is required in the interior. Illuminance levels will be between 50 and 200 lux in display spaces, higher in circulation areas and highest in places remote from the displays, such as the entrance. Vitron seals were required to prevent PEG ingress into light fittings which illuminate the hull. These will be replaced during the fit-out and light drivers will be located outside display cases to allow ventilation and maintenance without opening them.

‘It isn’t really necessary to remove the structure used to hoist the hull and it would involve many risks,’ says Wilkinson. The hull’s maintenance cranes would be costly to replace or modify and will be retained.

As part of the fire safety strategy, horizontal evacuation is provided by open stairs, allowing simultaneous evacuation of the whole museum. L1 automatic fire detection is fitted throughout and the main structural frame has a 60-minute fire resistance.

Concept and layout

Building performance was paramount. ‘We designed the museum from the inside out, seeing the ship and original objects as jewels, and conceiving the museum as a jewellery box, rather than a dominant architectural statement. It’s a light touch strategy,’ says Wilkinson.

Wilkinson Eyre and Pringle Brandon prioritised the processes at the core of the brief, initially resisting pressure to ossify the building’s form. They nevertheless remained faithful to the concept of a ‘virtual hull’, that can be seen in early sketches of the museum and also in a model, in which it resembles a hologram or a Tony Cragg sculpture. This form complements the actual hull within the cathedral-like space of the ship hall.

‘Fortuitously, the hull has been sliced down the middle by natural forces, as though dissected,’ says Brandon. This reveals its construction and also prompted the context gallery, a mirror image of the hull’s starboard side. Displayed here are approximately 4,000 original objects, mainly larger ones, such as cannons, on three levels corresponding to the ship’s three decks in the mirror image of their locations when the ship sank. The gallery’s outer walls are an abstraction of the geometry of the actual hull, but have dark glass-reinforced gypsum finishes, which identify the structure as a replica. The north side of the context gallery will temporarily be enclosed by a studwork wall, with windows providing views of the actual hull, and forms the south wall of the hot box. This wall will be removed in 2016, leaving glass-balustraded balconies.

‘We were trying to get the feel of what it was like on ship, which would have been very dark,’ says Brandon. ‘Although we were initially opposed to a prescribed route, we decided that there was a specific story that had to be told, although visitors can go off-piste’. Strategically positioned open stairs encourage visitors to follow the preferred route.

External envelope

‘All the spaces are really quite intimate,’ says Wilkinson. ‘To minimise the main volume, a lot of functions were removed from it.’ This reduced the cost, made it easier to regulate the internal environment and also helped the museum to adapt to the scale of its historic context and its height restrictions. The elliptical form of the main volume was generated by the geometry of the dry dock where the Mary Rose is berthed and is flanked by single-storey entrance and education pavilions with glazed and slatted timber walls. It resembles an oyster shell, prised open to form a terrace which looks towards HMS Victory.

Superficially, it also resembles Hopkins Architects’ London 2012 Velodrome (AJ 22.09.11) described by its architects as a ‘shrink-wrapped’ volume. But, the plan form of the Velodrome is more oval and its roof has a cable-net, Pringle-like geometry, whereas the new Mary Rose Museum’s roof has a constant eaves height, a toroid form and steel beams. Both buildings avoid roof-level services and penetrations and have raked timber-clad external walls. Those at the new Mary Rose Museum have a dark stained finish, evoking traditional nautical construction and the flush, butt-jointed planks of the Mary Rose’s carvel-built hull, without the caulking.

The museum’s whole structure rests on just four pile caps, as piling was restricted because the dry dock is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Like many Wilkinson Eyre buildings, the Mary Rose Museum balances art and technology and its concern with process – in this case a very long process – gives it integrity. ‘It’s a labour of love,’ affirms Wilkinson. This is, however, a process which will culminate in something rather remarkable: a museum which removes the remnants of the flagship from its plastic bag, turns off the spray and unites it with an abstraction of its other half in a highly tailored environment. Perhaps in this new incarnation the Mary Rose will unravel further mysteries and we may even find out why it sank.

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for Wilkinson Eyre Architects’ Mary Rose in the Library

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