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World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre by Roger Stirk Harbour + Partners

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ newly-opened British Museum extension carries the ‘Rogers’ imprimatur but it is very much the work of Graham Stirk, says Rory Olcayto

Perhaps you’re thinking ‘It’s not very Richard Rogers-y, is it?’ while looking at photos of the British Museum’s newest building, the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC), by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Maybe you’re jabbing a finger at the AJ’s website, or the magazine, asking yourself: ‘Where are the ducts? The bright colours? The expressive structure that shows how the building stands up?’  Well, that’s OK. You can think that if you want to. But you’d be wrong.

Wrong, because alongside the more exuberant buildings to emerge from the stable that brought us the Pompidou, Lloyds and the Bordeaux Law Courts – big, institutional buildings unafraid to declare their presence – there has always been another mode of expression in the RSHP studio: a subtler, calm, simple architecture that is sometimes hidden from view. The refurbishment of Billingsgate Market, a listed Thames-side warehouse, comes to mind. Its interior was given a highly serviced hi-tech refit way back in 1988 but, from the outside, toughened glass on the ground level arcade is the only hint you’ll get of the overhaul.

That low-key approach has been applied here in the listed townscape of Bloomsbury. The local residents and their pals are a bit … well, y’know, a bit Bloomsbury. They actually wanted to see a badly built, mock Georgian, sawn-off 1973 terrace retained in place of Rogers’ proposed scheme, and turned up en masse – 2,000 of them – at a public inquiry into the project. (Remember the hammering the Bloomsbury set gave Foster for using the ‘wrong stone’ in the Great Court?) Their pressure no doubt influenced Camden Council to refuse planning to RSHP’s British Museum extension proposal in 2009, although a revised plan, which saw a large part of the building relocated underground, eventually won the day.

As for bright colour, think of Lloyds – it’s kind of grey-black, no? And the ducts? Well this is probably the architect’s most duct-y building yet. You just have to look a bit harder to find them.  There is an entire floor given over to plant while, on the top floor, science labs boast highly polished stainless steel ducts that hug the ceiling. They’re actually quite beautiful – and a little like Rem Koolhaas’s art installation honouring heating and ventilation technology at the Venice Biennale this year. And they are proof that the WCEC (a truly awful acronym that everyone pronounces Wih-KEK) is the architect’s first exposed services building since Lloyds. Really? Apparently so.

There’s a lot of misunder-standing as to what exactly constitutes a Rogers building

Clearly there’s a lot of misunder-standing out there, among the public, among critics and among other architects, as to what exactly constitutes a Rogers building. (By the way, the expressed structure aspect is actually clearly explored in the WCEC too – in the Kahn-esque ‘servant stair’ towers – but we’ll come to that later.)

But – and it’s a big BUT – you’d be right about one thing: it’s not very Rogers-y. Because it’s actually very Stirk-ish. Graham Stirk, you see, not Rogers, designed it.

If last summer was all about Rogers, with a grand show at the Royal Academy celebrating the Anglo-Italian architect’s incredible career and coinciding with his 80th birthday, this summer is all about Stirk, the quiet man from Leeds. Not only has Stirk just completed the WCEC, but the tower he has designed for British Land in the City of London, nicknamed the Cheesegrater, has also just finished on site. This signals the moment that the succession plan initiated a few years ago by Rogers – a brave move some of his rivals and peers couldn’t even imagine doing – properly kicks in. From now on it’s safe to say that what you see emerging from ‘Rogers’ – a name that will be difficult to shake, and the name many clients still want to be associated with – is very much the work of Stirk and (Ivan) Harbour. Some would say it’s been that way for years.

Stirk is admired by critics and peers alike for his Miesian knack with steel and glass but Le Corbusier’s maxim ‘a house is a machine for living in’ better captures the qualities of the buildings he designs than ‘less is more’. It’s not about how they look; it’s about how they are put together. You could not imagine a project further removed from this one as the 2009 Stirling Prize-shortlisted Bodegas Protos winery in Spain, also designed by Stirk. Yet, like the WCEC, it is a kit of parts, with every element built off-site. (Although, as the project architect, RSHP associate John Elgunn, has said, with just one 30m-wide site entrance, the process was akin to ‘posting the parts of a grand piano through a letterbox and assembling it on the other side of the door!’)

RSHP British Museum

View from the north with WCEC at far right

The WCEC in fact, embodies the machine metaphor more completely, and more comfortably, than most. The glass, steel and stone composition, built by MACE, occupies the north-west corner of the museum site, bounded by Bedford Square and Montague Place, and replaces the Grade I-listed book bindery and other Georgian brick and backland buildings. The museum’s annual visitor numbers have grown from 5,000 when it opened to the public in 1759, to 6 million today, making it one of the most popular visitor attractions in the world. So, as well as providing the British Museum with purpose-built, state-of-the-art laboratories and scientific facilities to enable staff to develop and expand their work, the competition-winning scheme, expressed as two buildings that neatly plug into the museum campus like chips on a circuit board, also houses a huge new exhibition hall – the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. Alas, you will never experience this huge space in the raw state shown in the photographs for this study, because it will be forever reworked to accommodate touring exhibitions, such as the Vikings show, which gave the public its first experience of this new space. (Here’s another surprise: this is the architect’s first gallery since 1971’s Pompidou Centre.)

RSHP British Museum

The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery

But WCEC also provides storage space and study rooms for its vast collection of artefacts, which had previously been spread across three different London sites. There is a secret, Thunderbirds-style truck lift, that safely, discreetly, gives access to an underground logistics hub, a kind of sorting office for Indiana Jones, that supervises the transfer of the museum’s collection to exhibitions in other cities throughout the world.

Elsewhere an entire floor of mechanical and electrical plant serves the offices and conservation studios above it and controls the environment – the temperature and humidity – in the gallery below.

The architecture is more machined than machine-like

Alongside the architect’s other famous landmarks, Lloyds’ towering ‘oil rig’ or the Pompidou’s ‘Meccano’ park, the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre is less obviously metaphorical.  The architecture is more machined than machine-like. The facades are sleek, confident, horizontal streaks. They are defined by texture: cast glass strips set within polished steel frames that in daylight help cast ghostly shadows and at night diffuse an iPhone glow. Four Portland stone-clad stair towers with a fossiliferous texture stand aloof from the edge to lend a skyward thrust.

Yet much of the building remains hidden from view: more than 50 per cent is underground, and took a long time – more than two years – to build. The above-ground portion, however, was erected in a flash, roofed-over in just three months. The stair towers, incredibly, took 72 hours to erect. They are made from interlocking segments with stair stringers bracing the 12mm-thick steel walls in a pinwheel fashion as they rotate upwards. This is in line with Corb’s vision: he was dreaming of assembly-line factories, precision engineering and mass production of cars when he coined his famous phrase. That was nearly a century ago now and, while it still has resonance with our everyday lives, the architectural profession has long since moved on to other schools of thought.

The WCEC may be as sleek and inscrutable as a smartphone but comparing it to a machine only gets us so far. Like many of the architect’s buildings, it is a place where people are placed centre stage. The ‘black box’ design of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery makes this clear by creating what the museum’s head of exhibitions, Carolyn Marsden-Smith, has described as an ‘immersive environment’ that allows visitors to be transported to another time and place, with the architecture effectively taking a back seat but elsewhere, too, that is the case, whether in the science labs, the archives, or the logistics hub.

The WCEC is founded on a very simple idea: making the British Museum a better place to work and a better place to visit. Still, it may be some time before we can tell whether Stirk has succeeded in doing that. Until then, we’ll have to settle with knowing that the WCEC, at least, is very … Stirk-ish.

RSHP British Museum

The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery’s first show, Vikings: Life and Legend

Project data

Start on site December 2010
Completion July 2014
Gross internal floor area 18,000m²
Floor area: renovations 6,600m²
Contract Construction management
Project cost £135 million
Construction cost per m² Approx. £5,000
Architect Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
Client The British Museum
Structural engineer Ramboll UK
Services engineer Arup
Project manager Tony Wilson (British Museum)
Planning consultant Montagu Evans
Landscape design Gillespies
Townscape consultant Francis Golding
Quantity surveyor AECOM
CDM co-ordinator AYH/Arcadis
Construction manager Mace
Approved building inspector Approved Inspector Services (AIS)
CAD software used MicroStation
Annual co emissions 19.8kg

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