By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Your browser seems to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser.


Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.


Holding court

Despite the furore over the British Museum's south portico, Foster and Partners'Great Court, with its newly restored Reading Room, provides a triumphant public forum at the museum's heart

The British Museum is one of the great Neo-Classical monuments of Europe, yet it has, oddly enough, never been much admired, let alone loved. Work started on Sir Robert Smirke's building in 1823, but the imposing entrance colonnade was completed only in 1847. (In contrast, Schinkel's Altes Museum in Berlin was designed and constructed between 1823 and 1828. ) By the late 1840s tastes had changed and the Greek Revival style seemed hopelessly old fashioned. Even before the great portico was complete, the builder had described it as 'wanting in dignity, in character, in everything except the most effete and out wrought mannerism'.

For Ian Nairn, writing in the 1960s, 'it never comes to life for a moment . . . a prime illustration of the difference between a real design and honest application'.

For Nairn, the highlight was the Reading Room: 'As sure-footed and live as the rest of the museum is embalmed. 'Three years ago the Reading Room closed, its books and readers dispatched to the wastes of the new British Library at St Pancras. This week, the Reading Room reopened, immaculately restored to its 1850s appearance and with new books and new readers (the general public, rather than academics and acolytes of the PhD industry) as the centrepiece of Foster and Partners' Queen Elizabeth II Great Court.

The Great Court is classic Foster, a seamless, hugely confident welding together of conservation and innovation to produce not just an addition to a great world museum but, equally, a radical extension to London's public domain which merits comparison, for example, with the magnificent reconstruction of Somerset House.

It is this latter element of the project which sets it apart, for example, from Pei's Grand Louvre (great spaces but no resolution of the problems of circulation).

The site for the Great Court project (the subject of a 1994 competition) was the museum's central quadrangle, 'a dull, miserable looking space', as a 19th century critic described it, not much missed when (in 1854-55) it was largely filled by Sydney Smirke's Round Reading Room. The drum of this cast-ironframed structure was quickly enveloped by book stacks and the central quadrangle soon became no more than a memory. The north-south route from J J Burnet's Edward VII Galleries (opened in 1914) was always tortuous for anyone not in possession of a Reader's Ticket and positively daunting for the elderly and unfit.

The idea behind the Foster project was so straightforward as to seem obvious: clear out the bookstacks and other appendages of the Reading Room and turn the resulting space into a great public forum, the heart of the museum, by covering it with a huge glass roof. The £100 million scheme started on site in spring 1998 - completing it in two and a half years is an achievement in itself.

The idea may have been simple - it could have been conceived by the Victorians - but its successful realisation depended on advanced engineering and constructional techniques. The aim was to create a well-tempered but not heavily-serviced environment, neither over-hot in summer nor cold in winter. Buro Happold's responsibility for both structure and services allowed a close integration of the engineering (see the detailed account in AJ 23. 09. 99). On an intermittently sunny autumn day, the 'balancing act' between providing a calm and generous natural light and excluding direct sunlight appeared to have succeeded.

More sensitive areas - the Reading Room, the education centre sunk below the Great Court, the Great Court Gallery housed in the 'ellipse'which hugs the north side of the Reading Room drum, and the ethnography galleries located north of the Great Court (a separate Foster project, due for completion in 2003) - will, inevitably, be more heavily serviced.

The form of the Great Court's high-performance roof, supported on the walls of the quadrangle and on columns conveniently sunk within a cavity behind the new 60mm stone cladding of the Reading Room, has obvious roots in other Foster projects - the Cambridge law faculty, the 'Fosteritos' of Bilbao's metro and Canary Wharf Station, for example.

Its lightweight, ethereal look harks back to Lord Foster's past inspirations, not least the work of Buckminster Fuller. By making this roof float above the space, the architect achieves a potent contrast with the cleaned and repaired Smirke facades and the refaced drum, encircled by monumental staircases.

Spencer de Grey, Foster's partner-in-charge, describes the recast Great Court as 'a symphony in European limestones'. The quadrangle facades had to be extensively patched and even partly rebuilt to remedy the damage done when they were unseen and unloved - the bookstacks had been partly rebuilt after the ravages of wartime bombing - while the muchhacked-about brick skin of the Reading Room, complete with ugly new windows, could not be exposed to view. 'Our strategy was to keep the detailing of the new stonework very 'hard'and simple, as a contrast to Smirke, 'says de Grey.

Only now, with all the scaffolding down, does the variegated character of the original fabric become obvious. Pressed to comment on the contentious issue of the south portico, de Grey is unapologetic: 'It's a new structure, incorporating new elements - lifts, for example - and it looks new. That seems to me to be in accord with the Society for the Protection of Acient Buildings' principles. ' Such arguments have apparently not cut much ice with English Heritage, whose commissioners issued a pompous and inappropriate statement demanding that Lottery funding for the offending portico be withheld, further encouraging the posturings of Camden council's planning committee - not a body noted for its encouragement of either conservation or good new design.

When the public is admitted to the Great Court, it can safely be predicted that the debate over the south portico will soon fade.

The sheer quality and consistency of this project is likely to quell all but the more vexatious critics. In tune with the status of the institution, Foster and Partners has built on its previous 'old and new' schemes - the Royal Academy's Sackler Galleries, for instance, and the Reichstag - to create a fusion which has both dignity and a sense of place. The limited range of materials - natural stone, matt stainless steel, opaque glass - and the rigorous eschewal of extraneous detail is part of a formula for good looks and hard wear. The completed scheme has an apparent inevitability which conceals the problems and risks which it involved - the excavation of the basement, for example, had to be 'incredibly accurate', according to de Grey. 'The engineers would allow no more than 9mm movement in the frame of the Reading Room. '

Back in 1912, when Burnet's extension was nearing completion, W R Lethaby drew up proposals for a great avenue, linking the museum with the River Thames and connecting with another ceremonial route leading north towards Euston. The development of London University's central precinct blocked the route to the north, while the casual network of streets to the south survived to defy the best efforts of Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson in the 1960s. Between the two, the British Museum formed a massive and impermeable obstacle. With the opening of the Great Court, open late into the evening, the obstacle has been removed - the new space forms part of a pedestrian route across central London.

The Great Court has equally transformed the way in which one perceives the museum itself. It is possible to use it to move quickly from Greek marbles to African tribal masks or medieval antiquities, or merely as an oasis of calm and relative emptiness amid so many riches. You can sample the collection, drift easily from one culture to another, and avoid a wearisome march through apparently endless galleries.

For the first time, the British Museum has added an element of enjoyment to the visitor experience. It starts when you step into the Front Hall and find that a richly polychromatic decorative scheme of the 1840s has been restored, replacing the PSA grey imposed by a former director (on the grounds that aesthetics had no place in a scholarly institution). Such attitudes are now, hopefully, dead: the sleeping giant of Bloomsbury has emerged triumphant from its millennium makeover.


COST £100 million supported by Lottery grants of £30 million from the Millennium Commission, £15. 75 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and a gift of £20 million from the Weston family. The remaining funds came from a wide spectrum of private sources

TOTAL AREA 19,000m2




CLIENT Trustees of the British Museum

ARCHITECT Foster and Partners: Norman Foster, Spencer de Grey, Giles Robinson, Michael Jones, Julia Abell, William Castagna, Mark Costello, Daniel Goldberg, Nesa Marojevic, Peter Matcham, Filo Russo, Peter Vandendries, Oliver Wong, Diane Ziegler







HISTORIC BUILDING ADVISOR Giles Quarme Associates, Caroe and Partners, Ian Bristow


SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS commissioning management/technical authoring Dome; South Portico Easton Masonry; temporary reading room environment Sulzer Infra; tower cranes Hewden Stuart Wolff; demolition H Smith Engineers; multiservice Alandale; security Trident Security; reading room ceiling Campbell Smith & Company; site accommodation Premier Transline Building Systems; forecourt enabling works and builders' work Aldersbrook Construction; temporary gates Specialised Fabrications; existing gates and railings Capricorn Architectural Ironwork; forecourt stonework Cathedral Works Organisation; drawings D&S Building Services; site surveys and entrance survey Warner Landscapes; trial pit investigations and site investigation works Alandale; gate investigation works Dorothea; magnetic survey Technotrade; temporary humidity monitoring Dome; stone investigation Szerelmey; facade restoration St Blaise; concrete sub/superstructure J Doyle Construction; jet grouting Keller; temporary electrics EMS; electrical services NG Bailey & Company; roof steelwork and glazing Waagner Biro Binder; reading-room ceiling access system SGB; BMS and controls CSI Europe; reading room ceiling Hare & Humphreys; sprinklers Matthew Hall; lifts Associated Lifts; brickwork/blockwork Chisolm & Winch; WC fitout Ardmac; stone cladding Grants of Shoreditch; hoists GB Access; forecourt archaeology Pre Construct Archaeology

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters