The story of Goldibox: Maidstone Museum by Hugh Broughton
Hugh Broughton’s golden wing is surprisingly good value for money, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Hufton + Crow
If its back catalogue is anything to go by, you’d guess it must be fun to work at Hugh Broughton Architects. In recent years it has completed projects including the Halley VI Research Station in the Antarctic, the Channel 5 staff restaurant for the broadcaster’s HQ in Covent Garden, and a refurbishment of the Royal College of Surgeons. Other schemes include works for Edinburgh Castle and the Wallace Collection, as well as concept designs for the British Council’s worldwide estate.
Another refurbishment, for the TUC’s Congress House, and a shortlisting for the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva (the only British practice to make the cut from over 800 worldwide expressions of interest) suggest there’s never a dull day in the west-London practice. It does masterplans and residential work too. Who says you need to specialise?
This diverse portfolio probably gave a great deal of comfort to its latest client, Maidstone Borough Council, for which the architect has completed a new £3 million east wing at the Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery. As well as housing over 600,000 artefacts and specimens, including one of the UK’s largest Japanese collections, the museum that Broughton has added to is an agglomeration of buildings grouped around the 16th-century Chillington Manor. The Elizabethan structure forms the core of the museum, which opened in 1858, three years after Thomas Charles, a local doctor and antiquarian, left his stash of art and antiquities to Maidstone Borough Council.
The client wanted a contemporary design, but one that segued peacefully into this historic, Grade-II* listed mix. Given Broughton’s confession that his recently completed Antarctic project (AJ 29.11.07) was inspired by Thunderbirds (we’ll be covering this in due course, but in the meantime it’s worth saying: Peter Cook, eat your heart out) and his track record working with historic buildings, you can see why the council trusted the architect’s vision – a striking composition defined by glass, ‘gold’ shingles, concrete columns, saw-tooth rooflights and white rendered walls – to come good. This architect, who won the job in an RIBA competition six years ago, knows how to do both old and new together without getting stressed.
Following the renovation of the west wing in 2003, the new wing forms the second phase of the museum’s redevelopment programme. The aims are typical of any ambitious museum: the long-term preservation of the collection, an increase in visitor numbers and greater public involvement. This has meant doubling the storage facilities, bringing previously inaccessible spaces into use, providing new galleries, improved services like the shop and adding some new ones, and reconfiguring the circulation.
From a townscape perspective, the gamble has paid off. The TECU Gold shingles (expect to see many more projects clad in this stuff) actually work very well in terms of adding to the immediate locale, a wild mix of buildings that hugs the edges of Brenchley Gardens, a lush little park bound by Station Road to the east and St Faith’s Street to the south. A picturesque half-timbered medieval house sits where these two roads join (directly opposite the new wing), and the back end of Chapman Taylor’s Fremlin Walk shopping centre, a brick building with a bizarre scalloped corner roof detail, lies to the south. At the north end of Station Road, St Faith’s Church, completed in 1881 in the Early English style, sits behind Broughton’s golden bling box.
The new east wing actually wraps another wing extension added in 1869, and Broughton has successfully merged the metal envelope with the existing brick, stone and leaded glass, which share the same diamond pattern as the shingles: it’s very neat and tidy, a lesson in how to stitch seemingly mismatched materials like this together.
Broughton’s wing also provides a new front door for the museum, which opens into an open-plan foyer occupied by Maidstone’s visitor information centre and a knick-knack shop. The client obviously wanted it this way, and the marketplace today is among the factors that allow local museums like this one to remain free to enter, but a ‘shopfront’ gallery – set behind the bold circular concrete columns that in turn sit behind the glazed south-facing elevation, feels like the natural programme for a brand new space like this. The same problem arises one floor above in the glass-lined room that overlooks Brenchley Gardens to the north. This quite obviously should be a gallery too – but at present it’s a rentable space for conferences and such like with a big, awkward table crowding it out (despite what our photos show). Hopefully this will change in time.
Deeper into the ground-floor plan, the principal public space in the new east wing is a gallery housing one of the museum’s most prized exhibits – a Solomon Islands war canoe, apparently the only example of its kind to be found outside of the Islands. It feels under-used however, and there is a sense that more could have been made of the link Broughton has made with a public courtyard to the west and the Tudor facades hidden from public view for over 40 years.
Unfortunately, budget constraints have meant this outside venue is a little drab but again, there is the potential to upgrade it, once the dire financial mess we’re in begins to pick up. (Museum manager Simon Lace in fact has praised the architect for mitigating against economic concerns which dogged the progress of the project on site.) The new Japanese gallery, dominated by a striking Samurai costume collected in the 19th century by one of the museum’s founders, sits directly above the ground-floor reception: it’s the best space in the wing. Elsewhere, existing galleries in the original museum have been refurbished and re-organised, and with that and the new wing, display space has increased by a third.
Considering all this has been done for £3 million, other local galleries of a similar size will surely come knocking on Broughton’s door, who does appear to specialise after all – in providing value for money. That’s not going to go out of fashion anytime soon.
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