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Ship shape in Cornwall

LANDSCAPE EXTRA: A new museum in Falmouth is under way, providing a centre of maritime excellence while integrating land and seascape

I actually rang up the Railtrack timetable service because I thought that their online booking form was playing up. I was reliably informed that, yes, it does take five-and-a-half hours to get to Falmouth in Cornwall. Presumably, five-and-a-half hours back then? Unfortunately, I later discovered that I had not factored in a wait at the provincial desert that is Truro station.

On arrival, late in the evening, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bustling town. Very much in the tradition of British resorts, Falmouth is a place to stroll, eat pasties and write postcards.

Situated on the Fal Estuary, Falmouth is the third largest natural harbour in the world. Dominated by Henry VIII's twin castles of Pendennis and St Mawes, the area has been associated with the maritime industry for centuries, as one of the prime ports for the Packet Ships and first port of call for the wool and tea clippers and transatlantic voyagers. Nowadays, it boasts a world-renowned maritime college and hosts more leisure-based water activities - from the Classics rally in August to tourist mackerelfishing trips. What better place for a homage to the maritime industry.

The site, between the town and the working docks, is ex-industrial land on the world's largest deepwater harbour. Originally intended as a site for executive housing financed by Peter de Savary (who stood for election in 1997 for the Referendum Party in Falmouth and Camborne), some significant groundworks had already been carried out on site and then abandoned. The preparatory maritime engineering by Arup included the detailed design of a new sea wall, together with marine piling to enable the building to project out into the estuary. The building works, at their deepest point, are sunk about 10 metres into the water.

The architect, Long & Kentish, states that even though the building 'had to be a clear destination for tourists, we were determined that it should build on the positive existing character of the place, rather than try to transform it into something else. . .

It should contribute to the daily life of Falmouth, as well as to the passing delight of the visitors.' Therefore the museum is just one side of a new public piazza to be bounded by varying-height shops, restaurants and offices in the same architectural style.

The enclosed square will be seen from the main street and will be big enough to hold crowds during Falmouth Week, as well as being an area for local fetes and markets, or just a sitting-out area for taking the air.

Building on the traditional waterfront route beloved of holidaymakers, the architect has conscientiously incorporated a link across the front of the building, ramping up over the docking pontoon from which sailing demonstrations will take place and with views into the exhibition space. The route then bridges over the tidal pool, culminating in a walkway wrapped around the tower; finally disgorging onto a viewing platform to continue the waterfront walk.

The design reflects the boathouse vernacular, with diminishing slate courses and timber clad external elevations. The pitched roof eaves fall at a dramatic angle over the waterside with the slate coursing retaining a strong horizontal element.

The main entrance at the west elevation is through an opening which is dwarfed by the 24m x 17m high wall panel of English green (untreated) oak.

Land Design, in collaboration with the architect, has devised a route of light and shade interspersed with interactive displays and information points. There will not be gadgetry for the sake of it. Katherine Skellon of Land Design, stressed she was keen to avoid the ubiquitous use of computer screens and over-indulgent 'messages'.

Admittedly, hi-tech electronics will feature, but because this is a centre of excellence, the displays will be 'enhanced', rather than subsumed, in technology.

The journey starts in the Dark Gallery, a dimly lit space displaying nine boats suspended in front of a 30m long x 10m high audio-visual backdrop, which can provide a kind of all-encompassing disorientation when footage of force 10 gales are shown. The boats can be viewed from the floor or at viewing stations along the 40m ramp which takes the visitor out for the first view of the massive Daylit Gallery.

The wall, which separates the two areas and incorporates the audio visuals, is a three-dimensional plane on the Daylit Gallery side, replicating a ship's hull. Formed of marine ply over sheathing ply, the surface is supported on a basic support network of 50mm x 50mm timbers and spacers on plyweb perforated I-beams (as cladding rails) supported off main square section steel stanchions.

Other areas include a library resource room where many of the publications from the Maritime Museum at Greenwich will be relocated (its 120 boat collection is also being transferred). A lecture space, training room, working boatwright gallery and the Cornwall Galleries are also included, making this venue more of a resource facility.

The granite tower, a lighthouse-like structure that dominates the northeast corner, is a viewing platform and receives real-time information from the Met Office (a first for a private development), which is fed back into the museum's data banks and the coastguard office housed in the ground level of the tower. The tower extends down to the river bed where, in a dank concrete environment, visitors can watch the ebb and flow of the tides through 5m high, triple-glazed windows.

In general, the attention to detailing in the building has been well thought out and the external timberwork, even on some of the (never-to-be-seen) ship-lap fascias underneath the second floor, east elevation decking has been carried out with considerable care and attention.

At the time of my visit, however, some of the fair-faced blockwork workmanship left a bit to be desired and the exposed services to the internal soffits looks like a cost saving rather than honesty to materials.

However, this building is a very varied, pleasurable series of thoughtfully connected spaces and the subtlety of the display arrangement proposes to allow the exhibits to speak for themselves. In addition, by the architect and exhibitions designer taking advantage of direct contact with real active life on the estuary, the museum will undoubtedly provide enjoyment for the serious-minded enthusiast as well as those who just like messing about in boats.

Client

The £22 million National Maritime Museum Cornwall, opening in June 2002, provides an understanding of boats and their place in people's lives to inspire new boat design and to promote an understanding of the maritime heritage of Cornwall.

'Sitting on the shore, but with a toe in the sea, it is the centrepiece of an international leisure/tourism complex which wraps around an Events Square - a new waterside piazza created for concerts, exhibitions and major water sports events.

'For the first time, visitors will be able to see changing displays from the National Small Boat Collection of 150 historic and contemporary craft, rich in human interest. Hands-on galleries offer a wealth of interactive display.'

Also incorporated into a wing of the new building, the Cornwall galleries present a historical journey, highly evocative of the world immediately beyond the museum walls, bringing alive the important industries of Cornwall.

Tamsin Loveless, National Maritime Museum Cornwall, tel 01326 313388

Architect

The intention was to make a real place on the waterfront, and not a stage set.The building has been designed to describe the action of wind and water, as well as the boats which use them, and to make a building which is part of the harbour itself. It is designed around specifically different 'places' including daylit galleries, tower-top and underwater galleries, and outside decks, pontoons and tidal pools. It is not a neutral 'flexible' space.

The building is naturally ventilated and fitted with large doors which allow the interior to be transformed in good weather. It is clad in green oak and slate and recalls the large timber industrial sheds which preceded it on the site.

Long & Kentish

Exhibition designer

There were many high points throughout the development of this project.Testing prototype radiocontrolled model sailing boats in a test-tank; viewing the first edit of the audio-visual software for the Dark Gallery; commissioning local craftsmen of all skills, be it high-level rigging for the display cradles or building traditional Cornish gigs.

The most important point for us is the fact that the National Maritime Museum Cornwall has provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to support the development of an architectural solution that embraces the extensive interpretation and investigation of the fascinating story of small boats. We were appointed one day after the architect and from the start have developed a mutual respect that, in turn, will provide a model example of the potential of the collaborative process.

The low points are all too familiar, with our extensive association with Lottery-based projects;

few people understand the complexity of interpretative design and the ambiguities of the 'scope of work'. The all-important exhibition installations inevitably are treated as the project contingency but, ultimately, we believe that alongside Eden and Tate St Ives, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall will be the third major visitor attraction to help reinvigorate Cornwall's reputation as a major tourist destination.

Katherine Skellon, interpretative designer, Land Design Studio

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