IT RESISTS RECEIVED NOTIONS OF WHAT A BUILDING FOR CHILDREN SHOULD LOOK LIKE
Having both worked for Florian Beigel and Arup Associates, Adam Caruso and Peter St John set up Caruso St John Architects in 1990. The practice came to prominence with its New Art Gallery in Walsall, which was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2000, with its Brick House in London also listed last year. Current projects include an arts centre in Nottingham and the redevelopment of Tate Britain.
In the early 1950s, the artist Nigel Henderson took a series of iconic photographs depicting children skipping and playing hopscotch on the streets of Bethnal Green. These powerful images illustrated cohesion, found through play amid the poverty of a fractured, bomb-damaged East End. They focused a debate about the values and physical entities that foster community, which influenced a generation of architects and still seems relevant today.
Images of contemporary East End kids have, for the last year, adorned hoardings surrounding the second phase of redevelopment at the Victoria & Albert Museum's (V&A's) outpost in Bethnal Green: the National Museum of Childhood. Now the hoardings are down and it is apparent, following the completion of Caruso St John's £4.7 million transformation of the museum, that this architect continues to take such debate seriously.
That a part of the V&A came to find itself in this historically impoverished area of east London seems both strange and wonderful. The museum building was originally constructed in 1857 on what is now the site of the V&A itself. It was an early manifestation of 'Albertopolis', the complex of institutions that developed, on Prince Albert's instigation, to commemorate the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Indeed, the structure is similar in intent to Paxton's Crystal Palace, with three partially glazed, barrel-vaulted aisles of filigree, cast-iron construction, supported on a slender iron frame.
By 1865, the South Kensington museum had expanded into more dignified permanent buildings and, in a typically Victorian programme of social improvement, the temporary structure was disassembled and re-erected 13km to the east in Bethnal Green. It remained under the control of its parent institution, officially becoming home to the V&A's childhood collection in 1974.
Entering the vast interior of the original building, its social nature is immediately apparent. Families and children of all classes, races and ages mingle together. The excitement is palpable, assisted by an acoustic which gives the feeling of a market or, perhaps, a circus tent. Peter St John has commented on the extraordinary openness of this space, and phase one of the redevelopment, completed in 2003, investigated the inherent possibilities of its encompassing scale. To this end, the function of the central bay of the plan was clarified, and specially designed furniture was introduced in order to reveal the fish-scale pattern of the marble mosaic floor which runs the length of the building.
The entire space was refinished in soft, Victorian pink - a historically accurate tone used here in a flat, contemporary manner, emphasising surface and volume rather than detail.
In this second phase, an interlocking circular pattern, recalling Bridget Riley, has been painted across the mezzanine ceilings, creating visual relationships with the structural forms of the building. This treatment, on probably the largest visible surfaces, again emphasises the scale of the whole.
The transformation of the displays establishes a successful dialogue with these larger volumes and surfaces. Metal-framed glass cabinets refer to elegant, Aston Webb-designed originals, some of which still stand, restored, among them. Their form and crystalline, reflective flush surfaces establish intimate and complex spatial conditions, counterpointing and mediating the sense of scale with that of children.
Colour-coded adjustable interiors allow the cabinets themselves to recede, emphasising exhibits and establishing thematic dialogues with the activity areas around them. It is here that the play of scales is perhaps best expressed - through real play.
Among the fantastic collection of dolls' houses on the upper gallery, several of which contain miniatures of themselves, is a child-sized kitchen where, during my visit, a father sat giant-like on a small chair under the vast roof and was served imaginary tea in tiny cups by his young son.
But it is beyond the main hall that the extent of this latest phase of work is fully apparent. Much of it has involved the careful restructuring of the basement. Here a new learning centre, encompassing art spaces and a lunchroom, has greatly increased the museum's capacity to cater for school and community groups.
These are pleasant, well-tempered environments, articulated through a rich, warm, colour palette - but it is the front of the building that has undergone the most dramatic change.
In its first incarnation, the frame of the building was clad in painted, corrugated metal sheet. Following the move to Bethnal Green, the architect J W Wild replaced this with a finely-wrought brick skin, adorned with mosaic panels on the long elevations.
Concurrently, Wild designed a new frontage to the building, an entrance loggia linking a series of structures: clock tower; curator's residence; refreshment room; and library. Lack of funding left these unbuilt, giving the building a decidedly blunt facade against which an inadequate lean-to attempted to define the sequence of entry.
This unsatisfactory situation has been resolved. Caruso St John has constructed a new entrance, creating a generous and elegant foyer for the revitalised interior. This incorporates a community gallery as well as access to the new basement facilities (which include surreptitiously flamboyant WCs).
It's worth saying that these spaces do not represent the essay in tectonics which we might have expected from this practice.
Parts of the interior are timber-lined in douglas fir, but this has been overpainted in a mossy green hue. The rather beautiful structural soffit, of close-centred steel T-sections, has also been painted out. This sublimates the material change of the panels between the downstands and achieves a delicate overall impression, akin to folded paper. There is more direct material expression in the basement corridor, but generally these new spaces seem principally concerned with volume and surface. Through an enlarged opening, they establish a direct visual relationship between interior and street beyond.
Such adjustments to our institutions are undoubtedly familiar, responding to the need to increase accessibility or to facilitate commerce. The drama here is the manner of the intervention, for externally the new building does not subscribe to the manners of contemporary modernity by establishing a deferential, if formally and materially distinct, relationship to the existing. Instead it appears intent on tackling and extending the preoccupations of its Victorian forebear head on.
Undemonstrative and compact in form, it is through the surface that this engagement is played out. Almost as if it were a compression of Wild's original intentions, the facade is expressed as a loggia. However, rather than being defined spatially, it is represented entirely pictorially, through the application of geometric, polychromatic stonework. CNC-cut red porphyry depicts a trabeated colonnade, while pale limestone and quartzite are used to infill the gaps. This dialectic between planarity and perceived depth extends through the use of glazing set ush with the stone in three of the bays, while the remainder contain panels of a repetitive, geometric motif, offering a further illusion of threedimensionality.
The impression of tautness intensifies, paradoxically, where the entrance is actually allowed to recess. The temptation to continue the rhythm of the loggia in the form of 'real' structure is resisted. Instead the surface 'stretches' into the resulting space.
Corners fold around in a soft radius and the patterns continue.
Overall, its form, colour and optical effects remind me of Piero Della Francesca's Flagellation of Christ - which must be a compliment. The visual intensity of the new establishes a pleasing tension with the existing. Careful detailing facilitates this, suppressing junctions and consolidating the feeling of adjacency.
However, the question of the appropriateness of such applied decoration remains. The inscribed 'structure' cannot be said to represent the actual. The addition is not columnar and any relation to the structural rhythms of the existing is a loose one.
There will be some who will simply dismiss this as an unwelcome return to Venturi's decorated shed - but Venturi argued that surface applications are 'independent of the architecture in content and form and have nothing to do with the spatial or structural elements to which they are applied'. This infers a conception of representation which is generalised and unsituated. For me, at least, that seems at odds with the specific concerns this project establishes.
The use of polychromatic inlaid stones, intarsia, recalls those that appear in early Christian baptisteries or decorate the facades of Renaissance churches, notably Alberti's facade for Santa Maria Novella. The technique physically denotes ceremonial or festival structures, in a manner that might respond to the museum's current programme but which also offers direct associations with 19th-century architectural theories important at the time of its construction, notably those of Gottfried Semper.
In his book, Der Stil, Semper described colour as the most subtle and bodiless of covering materials, appearing as pure form and symbolising human events. He believed that the forms and colours of monumental architecture originated in commemorative festivals which reinforced community, and developed from temporary 'dressings' such as fabrics, festoons and garlands.
Caruso St John has previously expressed an affinity with Semper. For its Zurich Landesmuseum competition entry, undertaken around the time of this project's inception, Adam Caruso suggested that it had made a 'pure Semper facade'.
When one compares the drawings of the Landesmuseum with the completed Museum of Childhood, the similarities are evident.
However, Semper spent a large part of his career in Zurich, as head of what is now the ETH school, and exerts a strong inuence there, so the context is clear. Why might his ideas be important here?
In fact, they would almost certainly have directly inuenced J W Wild, for Semper lived in London from 1850-54 and was associated with the Great Exhibition. Additionally, his Dresden Opera House strongly inuenced the Royal Albert Hall, on which Wild worked as an assistant, and this, in turn, inuenced the design of the museum. In any case, Wild would have heard similar theories even closer to home: Owen Jones, author of The Grammar of Ornament, was his brother-in-law.
In a 1998 essay, 'The Tyranny of the New', Adam Caruso stated that 'the imperative to make forms that have no connection to the past and are the harbinger of an advanced future is anticritical and conservative? a more radical formal strategy is one that considers and represents the existing and the known'. This is not Post-Modern rhetoric. Rather, it represents a deep concern that modernity should contend with continuity. Radical or not, in this context it seems at least appropriate that Caruso St John should seek to 'complete' the museum in a manner which both critiques and responds to ideas from the time of its making.
Perhaps, however, this project is ultimately successful in its resistance to received notions of what a building for children ought to look like. Instead, the careful interior adjustments, alongside the memorable fabric of its new facade, have brought a sense of renewed purpose and dignity to a much-loved institution.
One can only look forward to the intended third phase, when the building's already significant urban contribution will be further realised. The existing offices from the south side of the basement are intended to be relocated, to make way for a café and an exterior public space. Engaging the neighbouring gardens, currently rather introverted, and the church beyond, will continue the stitching together of the museum's rich but fragmented context.
If undertaken, this will conclude a project which has already succeeded in placing the festivities of play at the heart of the community - where they undoubtedly belong.