Delicate or dull?
Rogers’ design for the British Museum extension tries to be all things to all people, says Kieran Long
My first reaction to the images of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ (RSHP) extension to the British Museum was pretty instant: Oh. That’s a bit dull.
It gets better the more you look at the plan – a rational arrangement, with five square-shaped volumes intersecting in probably very interesting ways to the west. The quality of the build will not be in doubt. A sum of £135 million buys you some really nice cast glass and the stone will be conservation-area-standard Portland Stone.
But has RSHP created a characterful exterior within this tricky historical context? I don’t think so. For all Rogers’ obsession with civic values in architecture, the practice hasn’t really produced anything of particular external character since the Bordeaux Law Courts, completed in 1998. The spectacular shed of Madrid’s Barajas Airport (2006) and the floating roof of the Welsh Assembly (2005) are great in their ways, but the practice just doesn’t seem to have a sense of composition in elevation these days.
This is revealed by an apparent confusion about what the identity of the British Museum extension is intended to be. There aren’t many other architects of the stature of RSHP which would couch their proposals in such laconic and apparently paradoxical terms. The building, the firm says, is both ‘monumental’ and ‘delicate’; ‘solid’ but transparent enough to allow ‘glimpses’ through; ‘quiet’ but ‘vibrant’. Sounds to me like it couldn’t make up its mind.
What will come out of it is a world-class museum facility, but a rather nondescript piece of architecture, with the most prominent gesture being what looks like a stair tower with a very thin, clip-on facade of stone matching the Robert Smirke original.
What with Foster’s Great Court, perhaps the legacy of British high-tech at the British Museum will be to prove that Rogers and Foster were always better at roofs than they were at walls.