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Holburne Museum, Bath, by Eric Parry

[AJ Building Study] Eric Parry has successfully, and respectfully, reintegrated the historic Holburne Museum building into its context with his radical extension, writes Joseph Rykwert Photography by Hélène Binet

The Holburne Museum building completes one of the best views in Bath, closing Great Pulteney Street, a boulevard a thousand feet long and a hundred wide.

It was once the stately Sydney Hotel, which opened to the pleasure gardens, Bath’s answer to London’s Vauxhall and Dublin’ Ranelagh Gardens. The players in the casino could walk directly onto the grounds to music from a graceful pavilion on the upper floor.

I had always admired Harcourt Masters’ portico and the sober front from a distance. Only when I looked at it closely did I realise how it was marred by the effete detail with which Reginald Blomfield primped its clear articulation when he gutted (his word) the building to adapt it for the museum, at about the time of the First World War.

It then became the definitive home of the varied collection of decorative, as well as ‘fine’, art named after its originator, the Scottish bachelor baronet, Sir William Holburne of Menstrie, who had been a midshipman at Trafalgar but spent the later part of his life in Bath. Originally, it had been rather cramped in the smaller house he had shared with his four spinster sisters. Further legacies, with legal and financial quandaries attached, had to be resolved before the final move to the former Sydney Hotel, which, for its part, had passed through various uses after it went out of business.

The integrity of the gardens had, in any case, been compromised when Brunel cut his railway right through them. By the time the Blomfield-ed building opened, the old house was completely walled off from the garden, while the building – whose extension was the subject of a competition in 2002 – was anything but the original.

Holburne Museum in the AJ Buildings Library

Images, drawings and data from AJ magazine building studies are free to view in the AJ Buildings Library for two weeks after publication

Eric Parry, who won the competition, had to take a number of operative decisions before he could begin to work out the outline of the project. The first was to treat the addition as a clearly separate element, and to use the new stairwell as an articulating link between the old and the new; the other was to re-open it to the gardens.

In the old building, he has maintained and refurbished the ‘ballroom’, which takes up the entire width of the house and opens to the portico. He has made it into the main display space of the permanent collection. Meanwhile, the top-lit gallery over the ballroom, which was Blomfield’s most valuable contribution to the fabric, has been adapted to become the home of the museum’s most prominent holding, its 18th-century English paintings.

Through a graceful, metal, Serlian opening, which echoes Blomfield’s window on the garden side, this gallery connects the articulating staircase hall to the space for temporary exhibitions in the new building, currently occupied by an entrancing museum of Peter Blake’s personal artworks and curiosities. Below it, and corresponding to the ballroom, is a two-level gallery for decorative objects, from furniture to miniatures, and it can be viewed as an extension of the display in the ballroom, the nucleus of Holburne’s original collection. The ground floor is given over to the café, open to the garden on three sides, which can also be read as a successor of the casino.

This ordering is shown on the exterior by the thickening opacity of the new building’s shell. At ground level, the café is completely transparent. The two-level exhibition room is lit by side-windows, while the top floor, which houses the roof-lit display space for temporary shows, has opaque walls (broken, a little unhappily, by a narrow central window to the garden).

Each of the three levels is gently cantilevered, but the outer glass skin is continuous and suspended, the control of heat gain insured by triple glass screen walls, internally ventilated by air drawn in at ground level and naturally extracted at the top. To mitigate the grid effect of the glazing and its supporting metal framing, Parry needed a finish which would help to conceal the joints, yet offer an almost autonomous surface treatment. For that outer skin, he chose a darkly mottled, blue ceramic, with which the top floor is panelled, as are the rhythmically alternating ribs, which, like stalactites, span the outer face of the building. Since they are exterior to the glass envelope, they cast deep shadows on its inner skin, and therefore, inevitably, become its most obvious feature.

It would, in any case, have been virtually impossible to match the old building, because of the inevitable differences caused by stone-working and weathering, so Parry’s decision to create contrast, clearly and sharply, seems to have been by far the best option. The northward position of the extension, the way it is partly screened by thick foliage, suggested the dominant colour of the ceramic finish, which looks really opulent as you observe the building from the gardens.

The addition to the Holburne Museum is quite a small building and, functionally, it is relatively straightforward. Yet it has, crucially, raised the problem of relating new buildings to historic, particularly to those whose visual impact is an inalienable part of a memorable townscape. The problem was mitigated when the plans were revised, limiting Parry’s intervention to a back-to-back with Harcourt Masters’ portico (he had originally planned two symmetrical additions on either side of it). Here in Bath, he had to challenge an almost sclerotic attachment to the stone surface of the existing buildings by planners and other authorities. His addition is now seen separately from the old Sydney Hotel, so that it makes no direct claim on the Great Pulteney Street by-passers’ attention.

Which is a pity, really, since he has managed the junction between the old and the new in an exemplary way. Of course, Parry already dealt with a more acute situation at St Martin-in-the-Fields, but in Bath the challenge has been more direct and it is a pleasure to report he has fulfilled his principal task – that of the re-use and reintegration of a historic building, affectionately respecting its identity, while asserting an autonomous presence through the use of sympathetic material.

Credits

Total cost £6.5 million
Client The Holburne Museum
Architect Eric Parry Architects
Start on site March 2009
Completion February 2011
Gross internal floor area 1,900m²
Form of procurement JCT design and build contract 2005
Structural engineer Momentum Consulting Engineers
M&E consultant Atelier Ten
Quantity surveyor Faithful+Gould
Project manager Cragg Management Services
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine
CDM co-ordinator PFB Construction Management
Facade consultant Arup Facade Engineering
Fire consultant Ramboll
Safe Lighting consultant KSLD
Conservation architect Richard Griffiths Architects
Access consultant Jane Topliss Associates
Café fit-out Softroom Architects

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