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Inside and out: British Museum by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

You’d expect a technical envelope, but RSHP’s British Museum building is all science inside too, writes Felix Mara

Surprisingly, Richard Rogers has never followed up the Pompidou Centre with another completed gallery project. This is set to change when his practice Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Special Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum opens in March 2014. Of course, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which established partner Richard Rogers’ and co-designer Renzo Piano’s reputations when it opened in 1977, was never purely a gallery, as it included many other facilities - a library, for example. Likewise, but more so, the Special Exhibitions Gallery forms only 7 per cent by floor area of the British Museum’s World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC), which has been designed by RSHP.

Whereas many have said that the Pompidou looks technical, most of what RSHP has designed for the WCEC undeniably is: conservation facilities, elaborately serviced science labs, a logistics hub, rationalised storage space, and a plant zone which is at the median level to minimise service rises and drops. But some of these facilities, for example the science and conservation zones, are less back-of-house than you might expect, and have been designed as places where visitors will feel welcome. Although much of the accommodation is below ground or tucked into interstitial spaces between the King Edward VII galleries and the museum’s North Range, the new conservation studios on the upper floors are blasted with daylight and enjoy privileged views across Bloomsbury, and one of the WCEC’s five pavilions has a strong presence on Montague Place, which forms the museum’s north boundary.

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Despite the conservative expectations of many who were involved in the protracted planning process, the WCEC’s exterior also looks technical, arguably more so than the interior, in its articulated use of prefabricated components. Perhaps this is best expressed by the analogy of a Swiss watch which Rogers has used to describe other projects, such as the Lloyd’s Building. This requires an architectural approach that goes beyond urban design at the level of streets, squares, terraces and landmarks to explore the more detailed components that define townscapes, such as columns, brackets and coursing.

The five-metre wide kiln-formed glass rainscreen panels on the Montague Place facade and elsewhere are defining components of the WCEC’s tectonic. RSHP lead designer Graham Stirk explains how these panels helped to fulfil the objective of a facade which is transparent by night, with matt, opaque, sometimes micaceous qualities by day, resonating with the 1914 King Edward VII galleries’ masonry elevation. ‘Translucent facades only work at twilight,’ Stirk explains. ‘Certain proprietary translucent systems have a deadly effect.’ The WCEC’s kiln-formed panels comprise outer leafs, with ceramic grit fused into the surface of the glass used to form laminated units with a DuPont SentryGlas film interlayer. Tear strips were used to make the pattern on these panels, which has six variations and involved mapping the coastline of the location in China where they were fabricated. The inner wall behind these panels, separated by a cavity with access catwalks, is alternately double-glazed, solid panelled and louvred and, by night, provides views into working areas or reflects illumination from LEDs. As a further refinement the panels, stainless steel clamp-fixed at their ends and at mid-spans, have 20mm-wide transparent borders, like the mitred edges of rusticated facade stones.

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The stair towers are clad with rainscreens of shell fragment-saturated Roach stone. Like the cladding to the King Edward VII galleries, this is a Portland stone, but RSHP resisted pressure from planners to express it as grouted, load-bearing masonry, favouring 10mm shadow gaps between panels which, at 50mm, are unusually thick. Along with the glass panels, these continue the horizontality of the King Edward VII galleries. Comparing it with the house at Creek Vean which Richard Rogers designed with the other members of Team Four in the 1960s, Stirk emphasises the avoidance of corners at the WCEC, which has an open-ended placard tectonic.

Just visible through the glazed slots at the corners of the stair cores are their distinctive fabricated steel structural wall panels, which support the staircase flights and landings as well as the cladding, and also stiffen these towers. These comprise steel plates welded together to form units, bolted together on site. With painted finishes which provide colour highlights, they are not only satisfying objects which will be contemplated by people using these circulation stairs, but also, as Stirk explains, passed muster at the VE stage because they reduced the steelwork tonnage.

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Beyond these tectonic highlights, there are also spatial configurations which are alternately dramatic, congenial, practical, flexible and adaptable: the 6m-high, 16m-wide column-free Special Exhibitions Gallery; the atrium of the science research labs; the fifth pavilion, submerged to create landscaped spaces at ground level and improve views from surrounding buildings. Where there was fragmented, ad hoc, dissipated accommodation and no loading bay - completely out of sync with the museum’s high-profile conservation, research and lending activities - there are now centralised, rationalised facilities with logical circulation and servicing, and even a 42-tonne truck lift.

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