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The ship’s sarcophagus: Mary Rose Museum by Wilkinson Eyre

The design of the Mary Rose Museum posed searching questions, but did Wilkinson Eyre and Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will find the right answers? asks Felix Mara

The regimented naval quarters and warehouses forming endless vistas in Portsmouth’s 800-year-old Historic Dockyard convey an overwhelming sense of power. Surrounded by a working naval base, the hulls of operational and decommissioned warships forming deep canyons with grids of cannons, its imposing structures yield glimpses of jade seawater and at its north end, rounding the bow of HMS Victory, you see an intriguing black structure like a giant beached mussel. This museum (see Technical Study, AJ 31.05.12) opened to the public on Friday (31 May) as the home of Henry VIII’s cherished flagship, the Mary Rose, which was built - and in 1545 sank - nearby.

For lead architect Wilkinson Eyre and the architect of the interior, Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will, the design of this structure, which envelops and augments a temporary lightweight enclosure built in 1984 after the Mary Rose was raised from the seabed, posed two searching questions. First, how should it address the challenges of its multiple roles as protective environment, research facility, museum and monument? Second, how to respond to its unique historic surroundings? What remains of the ship and its contents, finally reunited, is terribly vulnerable, but also subject to intense curiosity. A new museum had the potential not only to help visitors understand its significance - it is the only 16th-century warship on display in the world and contains a large collection of Tudor artefacts - but also to commemorate the 465 lost crew.

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‘We started with the idea of working from the inside out,’ says Wilkinson Eyre director Chris Wilkinson. ‘The museum has a very specific design, only suitable for the Mary Rose.’ So responding to the context was not the starting point. But Wilkinson, who is an English Heritage commissioner and wanted a contemporary design, did consider context a priority. He also wanted the museum to complement rather than distract from its displays, so in a sense the design was under pressure from both inside and outside and its evaluation involves asking whether it is perhaps too self-effacing. Many architects choose to work from the inside, but in the case of the Mary Rose Museum, this involved three specific tasks: addressing conservation requirements, considering the visitor experience by formulating a strategy for displaying the ship and its contents and organising spaces and circulation routes.

Like the Vasa, a Swedish warship that sank in 1628 and was salvaged in 1961, the Mary Rose was treated with polyethylene glycol to strengthen its timber fabric cell walls and seal its surface. These processes, lasting 19 years, were completed in April and, when the hull dries out, potentially in 2017, its current temporary enclosure, studwork walls and windows will be removed, allowing visitors to occupy the same space as the ship. The enterprise entailed building over this structure and limiting the new building’s internal volume to achieve the required environmental control levels. This involved designing simple spanning low-arched beams. The new envelope also carefully regulates daylight and energy use.

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The display strategy involves three concepts. When the ship sank, the starboard side of its hull and many of its contents were embedded in clay beneath preserving layers of silt on the seabed, whereas everything else was carried away or destroyed by chemical action.

The core strategy involved constructing a port hull complementing its salvaged mate. Visitors can explore the context galleries of this virtual hull, an abstraction of the original with GRG walls populated by carefully positioned salvaged objects from the ship. Ideally, visitors would be able to see the outer face of the original hull and this may one day bepossible.

The second concept, also integral to the external architectural expression, envisions the museum as a jewellery box, another stock architects’ approach and an analogy, often invoked to rationalise uninspired, low-key design, emphasising the museum’s contents as highlights. Due to their scarcity, timber artefacts more vulnerable on dry land are the most valuable. Of course, jewellery boxes can also be elaborate. Although Wilkinson Eyre describes the museum as a finely crafted jewellery box, this seldom comes across in its interior, where details, for example the roof soffits, are blacked out, greyed out or designed out. Fine glass cases in the context galleries are an exception.

The final concept, related to the jewellery box strategy, involves a gradation of low light levels. Wilkinson acknowledges the architectural appeal of daylit spaces, but dismisses them as an option in this museum, even where objects aren’t light-sensitive. Creating a sense of intrigue and highlighting displays against dark backgrounds is part of the logic, but Wilkinson and Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will director Chris Brandon emphasise their strategy of simulating the dark, claustrophobic conditions on the lower decks of the 45m-long ship with 500 crew, seconds before it sank, paralleled by intimate scaled spaces. They’re not that intimate, although there are unusually low soffits. Anti-boarding netting above the context galleries document a precaution that tragically backfired, fatally trapping crew. However, weather deck conditions are not recreated. ‘It’s anti-light,’ says Brandon.

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The spatial organisation follows a clear diagram, with the three linear context decks connecting large, semi-elliptical end galleries. As in the original ship, these context galleries, with unlabelled displays, follow a curve descending from the stern then rising to the bow. Visitors enter at middle deck level, typically descending an open staircase to the lower level before ascending to the top, enjoying the best view of the Mary Rose from a glass-walled lift car. But if there isn’t an attendant on hand to recommend the lift instead of the stairs, you could easily miss this experience, although you will have enjoyed an opportunity to follow your own path through the museum. This emphasis on encouraging visitors to explore is one of the building’s strengths. But this freedom is undermined by the simulation strategy, projecting a singular, literal interpretation. Nevertheless, it’s an imaginative visitor experience, although it doesn’t fundamentally challenge expectations or question the familiar routine of entrance desk, displays, shop and café.

Looking back at the museum after leaving, I appreciate how much is below grade, sitting in an elliptical 18th century dry dock whose geometry, rather than that of the ship, has generated its plan form. Nevertheless, even with much of its accommodation decanted to incongruous twin flanking pavilions, it is a bulky sarcophagus-like volume, much larger than HMS Victory and about twice the length of the Mary Rose, although a larger, more commanding museum for this hallowed treasure would not have been incongruous amid the dockyard’s imposing structures. However, construction on the scale of the Mary Rose Museum raises questions about detail and articulation unless a sublime, scale-less monumentality is preferred.

True to the finely crafted jewellery box strategy, Wilkinson Eyre found refinement in the setting-out of the external cladding planks, which slope upwards from the horizontal towards the ends, where they meet in ducktail configurations. The curved plan also belies the museum’s bulk, encouraging the eye to look around and beyond. The design makes no bones about references to the form and construction of the Mary Rose, through its toroid geometry and mimicry of the ship’s caravel hull construction, which facilitated the introduction of gunports that seem to have been involved in the chain of events that led to her sinking. Leaving aside questions of integrity, narrative and mimicry alone do not make for great architecture. The museum’s quasi-nautical form is a near miss, but avoids the kitsch of Stockholm’s Vasa Museum, with its pseudo-masts. However, redeeming qualities make it a good building, albeit one that punches below its weight as urban design.

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