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Imperial War Museum by Foster + Partners

Phase 1 of Fosters’ masterplan for the Imperial War Museum has a fittingly solemn effect, as though we were in the last resting place of a great warrior, writes AJ critic-at-large Ellis Woodman

Although now Grade II-listed and soon to celebrate its 200th anniversary, the main facility of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in south London is nobody’s idea of a great work of architecture.

It is not just the twin 15-inch naval guns mounted in front of its portico that give it a forbidding air. Originally constructed as a new home for the rapidly expanding Bethlem Hospital, it is every bit as grimly uninviting as might be expected of the 19th century’s most notorious lunatic asylum. The structure that stands today is in fact only the central fragment of what had been a much larger complex. When the hospital relocated to Kent in 1930, its site was bought by the 1st Viscount Rothermere, whose intention was to demolish the building in order to establish a park, named in honour of his mother. However, the trustees of the IWM – which was then occupying cramped premises in South Kensington – persuaded Rothermere to knock down only the side wings and lease them the remaining structure. In 1936 they duly relocated to what was left of the building, which now stood within the confines of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park.

The IWM was founded in the closing stages of the First World War with a remit to record that conflict’s human cost. However, soon after moving to its current home, the world found itself at war again and the institution expanded its brief accordingly. It continues to accumulate material relating to conflicts; placing ever greater pressure on storage and exhibition space. Over the years, that demand has been partly answered by the creation of major outposts at Duxford in Cambridgeshire and at Trafford in Greater Manchester in a quayside building by Daniel Libeskind (AJ 19.10.00). However, the main building in London has also been the subject of successive remodelling.

The most substantial revamp was undertaken by Arup in the 1980s and involved roofing over the hospital’s central courtyard to provide a top-lit atrium where large items of military equipment could be displayed. In its original configuration visitors climbed the wide flight of steps leading to the portico, crossed the lobby, and then encountered a view down into the courtyard a storey below. Arup, however, set the atrium floor at the same height as the lobby. Splitting the exhibition space between a labyrinthine undercroft below this level and narrow galleries arranged around the atrium above it, the layout did not make the most legible circulation system.

The Arup intervention also had significant technical shortcomings. The roof was faced in polycarbonate without any means of solar shading – fine for parking a Messerschmitt in the atrium, but highly restrictive on the choice of material that could be presented in the adjoining perimeter galleries.

By 2010, the museum had also concluded that its growing collection demanded the creation of a further 2,000m² of exhibition space. It turned to Foster + Partners – the firm responsible for the American Air Museum at IWM Duxford (AJ 06.11.97) – to develop a masterplan to guide the staged remodelling of the entire building. This month has seen the completion of the first and – at a cost of £40 million – largest phase of that plan. The key constraint Foster + Partners faced was that all new work should be accommodated within the existing volume. That was perhaps an inevitable requirement given that the surrounding park is now in public ownership, but one might yet wish that the practice had been afforded more freedom. In its diminished form, the building’s principal elevation is uncomfortably proportioned: the towering dome that Sydney Smirke added above the portico in 1846 is scaled to be seen in relation to a much wider frontage. Reasserting some of the lost volume could certainly have been of advantage to the old building, while also allowing the museum a less grudging relationship to the surrounding park.

Foster + Partners' Imperial War Museum

Twin 15-inch naval guns give the existing main entrance a forbidding air. A later phase of the remodelling will provide a new, step-free main entrance below the portico

The first phase of work has focused on the remodelling of the atrium. The floor that Arup introduced has been stripped out, reasserting the ground as the main ticketing and orientation level. At the moment, visitors climb down into this area from the lobby by way of a temporary stair, but a later phase will enable level access by a new main entrance below the portico, with the old front door being used only on ceremonial occasions. The atrium is both a taller and narrower space than its previous incarnation. The upper gallery levels have been successively teased out to provide additional exhibition space, the expanded floorplates picked up by a series of massive raking piers faced in precast concrete. This additional structure serves other purposes, too. In time, it will allow Arup’s barrel vault to be upgraded to incorporate glazing and solar control equipment.

The whole effect is decidedly sepulchral

It also supports a new deck three floors overhead – a rather Alsopian affair of concertina-ing form. Effectively blocking views of the roof, it admits toplight only around its perimeter. The reduced light levels finally allow fragile artefacts like textiles to be exhibited, as well as enabling a much-expanded use of film. Faced on its underside in faceted planes of polished aluminium, the deck also serves as a means of hanging aeroplanes, most prominently a Spitfire frozen in steeply banking ascent. Further pieces of military kit nose out between the piers on the upper levels. The whole effect is decidedly sepulchral, as if we are in the last resting place of a great warrior who has been buried alongside the instruments of his trade.

At the atrium’s far end, a new longitudinally disposed stair provides the prime means of vertical circulation. By dropping the entrance level, it has been possible to restructure the displays as a chronological progression from the First World War at the lowest level to current conflicts on the new deck. Eventually, the plan is to connect the deck through into Smirke’s dome – a volume that originally served as the hospital’s chapel, but which will be repurposed as a particularly magnificent tea room.

For now, visitors in search of a cup of tea have to make do with a branch of Peyton and Byrne that has been established to one side of the atrium. Here, new windows have been opened up onto the park, a change that a later phase of the project will implement on the opposing elevation, too. The greater permeability is welcome, but has resulted in some awkward juxtapositions. Considering the remains of a car destroyed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad installed in the central space one finds oneself looking a couple of metres beyond into the world of designer furniture and patterned upholstery of the café interior. Reconciling its function as a memorial to the horrors of war and the need to provide a great family day out is doubtless an ongoing challenge for the museum, but it is hoped that the project’s later phases can help it perform that balancing act more deftly than here. Nonetheless, the project impresses for its strategic clarity and for the range of opportunities for future development that it has set in place. To visit the museum today is still very much to encounter a work in progress, but one whose final outcome lies within clear sight.

Project data

Start on site January 2010
Completion July 2014
Floor area 22,500m²
Contract Construction management
Project cost £40 million
Architect Foster + Partners
Client Imperial War Museums and Peyton and Byrne (café/hospitality)
Structural engineer Buro Happold
Mechanical engineer Buro Happold
Cost consultant Turner & Townsend
Project manager Deloitte
Conservation adviser Alan Baxter & Associates
Planning consultant Deloitte
Acoustic engineer Sandy Brown Associates
Exhibition fit-out designer Casson Mann
Retail designer Drinkall Dean
Lighting consultant George Sexton Associates
Signage and wayfinding Holmes Wood
Approved inspector MLM
Construction manager Lend Lease
CDM co-ordinator Scott White and Hookins
Exhibition construction manager Fraser Randall
CAD software used MicroStation

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