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ALEC FRENCH ARCHITECTS/SS GREAT BRITAIN

BUILDING STUDY

Bristol-based Alec French Architects works in education, urban housing and on mixed-use schemes. It is currently working on a new building for the faculty of art, media and design at the University of the West of England; retail and residential redevelopment in Bristol; and a community pavilion and a new headquarters for an owner occupier.

'Bring her round, bring her round, ' echoes the voice of an invisible midshipman as one starts one's journey through the SS Great Britain Heritage Centre in Bristol, a true museum set among a motley collection of dockside sheds, ship-repair yards and the great ship herself. This is a museum that is as much a celebration of what it was like to sail aboard the ship as about how she was made and, in the process, loses none of the drama for the sake of health and safety. It is a space that sucks in the young and the old alike, leaving each visitor enriched, educated and entertained.

To achieve this requires architecture and engineering that can understate its purpose and sit silently alongside the objects and experiences themselves. This is not an iconic project, rather a project for an icon. Here the Alec French Partnership, with Arup, has created, both within and around the ship and in the sheds, an experience that must put the SS Great Britain Centre among one of the top ten museums to visit (on a par with the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, which our family also visited recently and which came second in the Gulbenkian Museum Prize 2005).

The Alec French Partnership achieved this within the dockside buildings by retaining the sense of shambles that one associates with decaying workshops. A huge 32m-long main yard hung from a replica mast runs the length of the space, much like the B52 at Duxford, and all around are pieces of ship that enlighten and illustrate the journey through the space that is forever off the level - one finishes at the crow's nest before bridging across onto the deck of the ship.

The fabric of the building itself appears, like the contents, to be in a state of artful decay suggestive of a business that is transient and about the crafting of great objects. Such a stage set was part of the client's brief. It recognised the concept of constant maintenance as something that would make the experience real. This creates the illusion of a working building within which it is almost possible to feel the iron dust under one's feet; smell the Player's Cut on the breath of the invisible midshipman; and sway with the ship in the crow's nest.

Apparently, the latter did sway a little and, being sensitive to the matter, Arup considered it prudent to stiffen it slightly.

This shed forms the first part of three sections, the others being the ship and the below-waterline experience - set in the dry dock itself. Each is very different. The shed is the Tardis that takes one back in time and allows one to enter the ship as a passenger might, literally across a gangplank that punctures the top of the shed and takes one over the gunnel onto steps that lead down onto the deck. Previously, an opening had been cut through the hull, which now remains as a very discreet means of escape.

Within the ship, the architectural interventions are delightfully minimal and sensitive and, apart from the subtle insertion of a disabled lift, are completely within the historic context. The experience within is extraordinary and one for any reader and his or her family.

The third element of the experience is altogether more heroic. The listed dock (the site within which the ship was originally built) is roofed with a glass ceiling that is flooded with water, so that the ship appears to float again in all her glory.

Clearly an item of excitement, the glass ceiling, which is propped from below, is an engineering tour de force - albeit it a fairly modest one - although 20 names from Arup are credited as having worked on the project. This glass structure reaches out towards the ship but stops just short as the ship itself is subject to thermal movements, and so the last 100mm gap is finally sealed with a Hypalon membrane that is attached to a stainless-steel T-section glued to the ship.

The covering of the dock and the refloating of the ship, in retrospect, hardly needs justification. But, in truth, the ship, having been a wreck in the Falklands for 40 years, is so badly corroded below the waterline that it was possible to put one's hand through the hull in places. What the ceiling of the dock does is make an internal space with a controlled environment that, together with the air-conditioning of the interior of the ship itself, creates an environment within which the corrosion is effectively arrested. The space is a glorious Jules Verne adventure playground. Modest lifts and stairs take one from above to below water level and engage everybody in exploring the hull and, most especially, the propeller itself.

The SS Great Britain was the first propeller-driven ocean liner. A revolution in her time, being able to reach out and touch the very thing that made her special is akin to being allowed to climb the masts of the Cutty Sark. Having, in the shed, already been introduced to the concept that this propeller could be raised as she went from steam to wind, and feeling first-hand that the rudder was so finely balanced that it required the lightest of hands to bring her around, makes the experience sublime. One can excuse the rather lumpen concrete bases that spread the load from the steel propping the glass ceiling onto the surface of the dock, which clearly didn't engage the engineers quite as much as the glass above (or perhaps suffered from value engineering) and the confusion between the props to the ship and the ceiling, which one could have enjoyed more had they been differentiated - the ship would have conventionally been propped with timbers.

Curiously, because it is a ship, the SS Great Britain, one of the UK's greatest maritime monuments, is not listed, although the dock is. Intriguingly, the whole edifice may be subject to flooding.

At the dock entrance, the glass ceiling contains a series of flaps, which a curator is required to open in the event of a 1-in-200-year storm. Without the flaps, the glass ceiling would be inundated and collapse. That the ship may momentarily float again must still tax the minds of the curators and trustees.

Throughout the experience of visiting the SS Great Britain Centre and the whole dockyard, there is a welcome sense of architectural modesty that sets the project apart from so many museums where the architecture in its own right is sought for as part of the pitch. The journey to and from the SS Great Britain Centre is best made by catching a little river taxi from either Bristol Temple Meads station or the city centre, and throughout that journey one can enjoy, or otherwise, architecture in all its glory in the form of the dockside renaissance. After such indulgence, the SS Great Centre project is a superb digestif and a particularly fitting location for an office away day.

The SS Great Britain was the brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and backed by the merchants of Bristol in an attempt to maintain the city as a centre for Atlantic travel, which was being lost to Liverpool and American outfits. Some of this sense of catching up remains - although Liverpool is set to become the European capital of culture in 2008, it would appear that Bristol is gaining ground.

STRUCTURE AND ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROL

The iron of the SS Great Britain's hull is saturated with salts from its time spent immersed in sea water.

These salts attracted moisture which accelerated corrosion.

Research revealed that the average relative humidity (RH) of the air in Bristol was 80 per cent; a reduction to 40 per cent RH slows the corrosion dramatically and a reduction to 20 per cent RH halts it entirely. To achieve this, a horizontal glass plate was installed at water level, forming a seal between the ship's hull and the dry-dock wall to allow the air below to be dehumidified. The glass waterline plate's exterior is covered by a 50mm layer of water, extracted from the adjacent harbour, giving the impression that the ship is floating and helping to cool the glass.

The glass plate is supported on trapezoidal-section steel beams, fixed back to the dock walls on resin anchors. Glass fins span between the steels to support the junctions of the glass plates , while minimising the visual impact of the structure. The edge condition between the glass plate and the hull was a critical detail. A special double-layered seal was created from Hypalon - a material more often used for inflatable powerboats - to seal the plate to both the hull and the dock wall. The Hypalon covers a nominal distance of 200mm between the glass plate and the hull, allowing for any possible movement. The glass plate and the dehumidification works are designed with minimal impact to the listed dry dock and the surrounding dockyard. Necessary structural and ventilation works are designed to be reversible and are clearly expressed as contemporary interventions.

Within the ship itself, essential strengthening works and extensive ductwork for the dehumidification of the interior have been integrated without altering any of the original structure.

Credits

Client

SS Great Britain Trust

Architect

Alec French Architects - David Mellor, John Fjeld, Tim Burgess.

Concept design

Matthew Tanner (SS Great Britain Trust)/ Robert Turner (Eura Conservation)

Concept initial development

Julian Harrap Architects/Jane Wernick

Associates

Civil and structural engineer

Arup Bristol and Cardiff (deck and glass plate)

Structural engineer

Fenton Holloway (ship and museum)

Services engineer

WSP

Project manager and cost consultant

Capita Symonds

Iron conservation specialist

Eura Conservation

Main contractor

Bluestone

Waterline plate subcontractor

Space Decks

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