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Steel makes space for stone

Steel was used to play an inspiring supporting role for the ancient stones of the Margam Stones Museum, South Wales

The Stones Museum, Margam, sits in richly wooded countryside, north of the parish church and monastic ruins of Margam abbey, 3km east of Port Talbot. Since 1933 this listed, former church school - one of the earliest church schools in Wales - has housed the collection of 34 carved stones of various sizes, from the sixth century - one was originally a Roman milestone - to a few post-Reformation slabs of the late sixteenth century.

In 1994 Cadw, the Welsh heritage organisation, became concerned with the state of the building fabric and the consequential damage to the stones collection, some of which were delaminating due to salts rising from the floor. In addition, the museum was overcrowded, old fashioned and uninviting to visitors. The project office of the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff, was selected to carry out the work. The brief from Cadw required reorganisation of the stones collection, concurrent with remedial and improvement work necessary to remedy defects in the building fabric and ground condition.

Externally, the building was left untouched, with its south-facing side wall, an eighteenth-century version of a curtainwall, consisting of two rows of three elegant, arched windows overlooking a graveyard, still braced by their original delicate steel frames. The north-facing pitch of the roof contains two rooflights, and the north-facing wall two windows. The interior, however, a single space rising into the pitched roof, has now been given a new entrance lobby.

As directed by Norman Robson-Smith, the project office's strategy provides a new visitors' route via the remodelled entrance hall into the museum, which now houses a sequential stones display, arranged on two levels, the higher made accessible for viewing via a galvanised-steel gallery and stairway.

The works displayed at the higher level are wall hung, gripped to the wall by steel claws, and recessed in a display panel painted Roman red; the larger works appearing to stand in the recess, but supported and stabilised by steel claws. At ground level, apart from a gargoyle, which projects appropriately from the wall just above head height, the works are free standing, with some arranged along the wall on a low plinth, others placed more centrally for all-round viewing.

The modern steel viewing gallery and staircase fit into the eighteenth- century school building with commendable ease. The perforated steel risers and treads of the stairway, while allowing maximum amounts of light to pass through them, are tactile in a most appealing way and positively encourage ascent. The stair flight is in fact constructed from a single folded perforated steel sheet. This sits within, and is welded to, two sets of slender steel stringers. The balusters shaped from flat steel are tapered, blade-like, and are, to inform us of the craftsman's role, suitably underworked. Set sideways on to the curtainwall and windows, they too serve the project's aim of maximising the passage of light, while the blade-like design makes reference to the historic contents.

The two balusters on the slope of the stairway are set at right-angles to the rising stringers and visually direct visitors upward toward the gallery - acting, fortuitously, since the gallery will be unmanned, as an integral direction indicator. Nine tautly strung steel tension cables run from and through the balusters to form balustrades.

The gallery is constructed from planks of perforated steel which allow light to pass through to exhibits below, and possesses a similar tactile appeal to that of the stairway. Running parallel to, but 850mm from, the north-facing wall, the gallery has balusters and balustrades on all sides. The balusters here are composed, more substantially, of two parallel tapered blade sections, satisfyingly spaced 100mm apart, and again set edgeways on to the windows to allow maximum passage of light. The gallery is supported on rsc and uc beams on 139.7mm-diameter chs steel columns.

The gallery houses one most impressive work: the Knight's Effigy, a huge stone piece, displayed horizontally, apparently floating in space. This apparent levitation asserts the suitability of steel for this project: the stone, weighing a quarter of a tonne, lies on a steel platform ('bier') supported on 1m-high slender paired cruciform legs stabilised by two pairs of 8mm-diameter stainless-steel tension cables ('guy ropes') anchored to brackets welded to steel floor beams.

The illusion of levitation results from the design of its supporting structure: the 12mm-thick platform is provocatively cantilevered 1.4m beyond the cruciform legs. Practically, this huge piece is exhibited in a way that takes up minimal space, thus maximising viewing light from both the roof-lights and second-level windows to the exhibits below. In design terms, the 'bier' and 'guy ropes' wryly support their historic load. The presentation admirably avoids both over-intrusion and clinical academic display methods.

The near total reliance on steel - the ash hand rails being the single exception - has resulted in the minimisation of structural invasion into the museum so as not to deflect attention from the exhibits on show, and the maximisation of natural lighting to enhance the viewing by the museum's visitors. Also, the unashamed presence of nuts and bolts and the visibility of the welded joints sit comfortably with the craftsman's carving in the collection of stones. While the team's strategy has been to ensure all daylight sources have been used, display lighting has been incorporated into the design of secondary components.

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