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Box of tricks: The Novium, Chichester

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Keith Williams Architects’ Novium is fearless in the face of Sussex’s Modernist remains and Chichester’s Roman ruins, writes Felix Mara. Photography by David Grandorge

If you travel down to Chichester to visit Keith Williams Architects’ Novium museum, which opened last month, you might want to take a copy of Colin Rowe’s, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (1976) in your back pocket.

The Novium, which takes its name from Noviomagnus Reginorum, as Chichester was known to the Romans, is a museum of social history, with flexible temporary and permanent galleries, uncluttered displays designed by Event Communications and good public and back-of-house facilities.

The museum had outgrown its former accommodation in an 18th century house with restricted access, when Chichester District Council seized the opportunity to relocate to the site of a car park built over Roman baths discovered in the 1970s, yet not seen by the public until their integration into the Novium as its star attraction. But The Novium scores highest as an exercise in architectural form-making and urban design. Rowe’s collection of essays, not so much a crib book as the articulation of ideas written into the DNA of two generations of architects like a cosa nostra code, is a key that unlocks its box of tricks.

You might also want to take Rowe and Fred Koetter’s Collage City (1978) with you. This expands on ideas in the essays collection and was devoured by a generation of architects who rediscovered history and traditional European urban design after after they were purged by Modernism. Just as Rowe’s prose is intoxicated with history and the Modernism that it critiques, Keith Williams is at ease when working in a modern idiom within a dense, historic urban fabric, for example at Wexford Opera House (AJ 16.10.08) and Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre in (AJ 06.10.11). Williams’ figure-ground analysis of Chichester’s medieval plan, its circular form quartered by two streets, identifies the transition to its historic building grain in The Novium’s locale, where there was extensive demolition in the 1960s and 70s.

His brief was to repair this urban grain by designing proposals for a museum and housing to be built by a still-to-be-found developer on the adjacent site to the north. It was to be redevelopment, but not holistic, comprehensive redevelopment; an approach that Rowe would have endorsed. Williams also identified a code in the local use of materials, with imported pale stone used for keynote buildings such as the cathedral and market cross, and the usual Sussex blend of brickwork and render for the residuum.

The Novium, which houses Chichester’s foremost archaeological remains, gets the VIP treatment, but in large, pale, reconstituted stone panels with suppressed joints, whereas brickwork, as used in the neighbouring terraces, is proposed for the housing. Perhaps in a wave of 1930s and post-war optimism, historic Sussex has been a haven for Modernism, such as Mendelsohn and Chermayeff’s De La Warr Pavilion, Basil Spence’s Maison Jaoul-esque University of Sussex, and Powell & Moya’s Chichester Festival Theatre. Williams was not intimidated by this context. He acknowledges that, as at Canterbury, the cathedral is ‘the biggest gig in town’ and takes the language of its bluff and blocky quasi-Romanesque forms to new levels of abstraction in the museum, while setting back the housing’s attic storeys and emphasising its verticals, conforming to local practice.

Viewing the museum from the south end of Tower Street, the opening section of the most celebrated essay in Rowe’s collection, a piece on Le Corbusier’s La Tourette, springs to mind. He describes the powerful effect of the opaque facade as visitors approach, comparable to the blank panel on the more traditional front elevation of one of his early La Chaux-de-Fonds houses. The sheer, seemingly monolithic south face of The Novium’s turret, so called because it doesn’t extend to ground level, bears the museum’s name and forms an abstract backdrop to the more familiar and figurative Georgiana to the south.

As at La Tourette, elements of the museum’s facade shift and crank as you come closer, beginning to round its sculptural forms as the principle facade’s pale blank panel comes in to play. This is undercut by a shaded shop-window of glazing which splays off at a tangent, inviting you to enter despite obscuring what lies behind. Acting as both flat facade element and three-dimensional sculptural form, the turret was shifted northwards to open up views of the cathedral spire to the south and westwards to establish the plain of the street frontage.

In his title essay, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, Rowe analyses the proportions of facades by Palladio and Le Corbusier. Similarly, Williams has superimposed a golden rectangle, squares and other specifically proportioned rectangles on an elevation of The Novium’s west facade. This facade’s second floor parapet, its height fixed by that of the temporary gallery, is set back to allow a lower parapet to align with the coping of the Georgian house adjacent to The Novium’s neighbour, also resolving the composition into ‘ideal’ proportions.

‘I didn’t set out to design it like that, but it was a kind of endorsement,’ says Williams. ‘The turret provides accent and balance to the composition.’ Since the Enlightenment, it has been standard practice for proportional systems to yield to the judgement of the eye, but Williams’ attention to the ideal proportions of this facade helps to establish its frontality.

The various facade set-backs and use of vertical and horizontal recesses provide articulation and a strong sense of layering. As the examples described in Rowe and Slutzky’s essay Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal, these layers and the museum’s volumetric modelling add depth to its largely opaque facades. In the case of the sheer south facade, the set-back glazing is driven by fire regulations governing unprotected areas. Williams has also astutely safeguarded his configuration of the west facade by forming a three-storey stub-wall on the north elevation, slightly set back from the corner to ensure the proposed residential unit abuts The Novium with a vertical recess and not a bodge.

This sense of layering continues internally. The entrance door directs visitors towards a reception area with a desk like a black walnut microcosm of The Novium’s external massing. You simultaneously find yourself in the corner of a cavernous space that feels as if it’s been hewn out of the enclosing volume, with the ruins of the Roman baths in a large crater.

The Purbeck stone of the external paving extends into this space, which has two massive concrete columns and carefully worked light grey micaceous, sand-blasted fair-faced in situ concrete walls, which form the backdrop to the baths. A crack in the ceiling lets in the sky between two storey-height flights of a scissor-stair, which draws you upwards through layers of construction to the galleries at first and second floor level. If the second floor gallery is an anti-climax after the cathedral window at the top of the staircase, this is because the architecture is so good. But for those who enter the learning room, there is one final climax as you look out across the external terrace.

On the train home, read Rowe’s Chicago Frame; an illuminating explanation of the spirit of Modernism as a response to modernisation. This might lead you to ask whether, like Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple, The Novium is just too self-conscious, dry and academic, but you would soon conclude that its erudition is tempered by its artistic conviction and its rigorous post-Brutalist tectonic.

Project data

Start on site April 2010
Date of completion September 2011
Exhibition fit-out completion July 2012
Gross internal area 1,100m
Procurement Traditional contract
Construction cost £4.035m
Cost per square metre £3,668
Total cost £6.9 million
Estimated annual CO2 emissions 24.9kg/m
BREEAM rating Very Good
Client Chichester District Council
Architect Keith Williams Architects
Main contractor Vinci Construction
Project manager Robinson Low Francis
Structural engineer Techniker
M&E consutant Gifford
Lighting consultant Sutton Vane Associates
Quantity surveyor and CDM coordinator Rider Levett Bucknall
Archaeology consultant Development Archaeology Services
Disability access consultant Martin Affleck
BREEAM consultant Northcroft
Exhibition design Event Communications
Zinc cladding and roofing VM Zinc


Working detail

Cathedral window

See full-size images of Cathedral window detail 1 and Cathedral window detail 2

The Cathedral Window occurs at the highest publicly accessed level within the museum at the top of the main public staircase and is a natural pause point before entering the final main gallery. Museums provide a largely introspective world to the visitor, who focuses on the content and the internalised experience. Our intention at this point in the journey through the building is to provide them with a wholly new perspective across the city roofscape centred on the spire of Chichester Cathedral to reconnect with the city, the essential subject of the The Novium.

Our initial designs envisaged a floor-to-ceiling glazed enclosure facing toward the cathedral. However, the foreground to the cathedral view included a number of service yards abutting the rear of adjacent buildings and so using a cherry picker and video remote camera on site, we identified the best perspectives and introduced a solid zinc clad wall to 1.2m above floor level with an enwrapping cheek to frame the view.

The detail of the glass box evolved through development with the glazing sub-contractor Cantifix. The glazed roof panels fall into a secret gutter towards the rear and are sized to be self-supporting double-glazed sealed units without secondary structure to achieve the lightest possible physical enclosure.

Naturally ventilated to one side with a full-height openable glazed vent, the space connects directly into the main stairwell and is vented through BMS-activated toplight louvres to create a stack effect.

Keith Williams, founder and design director, Keith Williams Architects

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