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Dana Research Centre and Library at the Science Museum by Coffey Architects

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Coffey Architects’ new research centre at the Science Museum is well detailed and has flourishes that add to the architectural quality of its context, says Laura Mark


Coffey Architects’ Dana Research Centre and Library opened this month, providing scholars with access to 500,000 items archived at the world-famous Science Museum in London’s South Kensington.

Located in the Wellcome Wolfson Building, which MJP completed in 2003, and apart from Richard Allison’s main museum building, it is at the moment a little difficult to find. On the day I visited I was directed to numerous places by different members of staff before I eventually discovered it. But this refurb of a previously underused café in the Wolfson is the first component to complete in the museum’s £60 million masterplan and, though it currently feels separated, in time and as further work at the museum completes, the Dana will be better connected with the ensemble.

The museum’s latest strategy was developed after Wilkinson Eyre’s original plans for a £150 million overhaul of the institution were scrapped in 2011. The practice’s radical plans would have been the most extensive overhaul of the museum in 60 years and were set to feature a golden, undulating roof and a large glass ‘brain’ bulging out of its Exhibition Road facade.

But these costly and radical plans were not to be. Wilkinson Eyre’s masterplan has been replaced with one, which breaks up the work into smaller chunks, with competitions run for a range of new gallery spaces (see previous page). A raft of projects, including an interactive gallery by Muf and a mathematics gallery by Zaha Hadid Architects, are set to complete later this year.

Coffey’s library shows that this idea of breaking the larger project down works. Here the client has commissioned a practice well known for smaller jobs to do what it does best. It is well detailed and has flourishes that add to the architectural quality of its context. Its standout feature – a double layer of metal perforated panels which line the room’s expanse of glazing – is what transforms the interior.

‘On a sunny day, dappled light floods into this space,’ architect Phil Coffey assures me on the overcast March morning of my visit. He adds that its design derives from the tale of an apple falling on Newton’s head, supposedly leading to the discovery of gravity. This led to the concept of the building as a canopy, filtering light, under which research, reading and contemplation might take place. Without this screen, which features layers of holes that align here and misalign there, presenting a shifting and variegated mix of light and shade, the space could have seemed a little lifeless. But it adds movement to what might otherwise be considered just a long room.

Another simple element which defines Coffey’s library is its complement of oak bookcases. These are located in a lower-height space deep into the plan and have been designed to conceal the structural columns supporting the floors above. They add warmth and a materiality that contrasts with the white walls of the light-filled, double-height reading room beyond.

Altogether it is a lovely space and Coffey’s work also improves the approach from the street, where the oak of the library extends into the Wolfson’s main foyer space.

But further enhancements are still needed at the eastern side, which faces towards the main Science Museum. Here, through the library’s expanse of glazing, you are presently confronted with what seems more like a service yard than a planned space. It is crying out for a landscaped courtyard to link the two buildings and it is to be hoped that in the museum’s masterplan some cash can be found to do this alongside all the improvements being made to the galleries.

Dana Research Centre and Library at the Science Museum by Coffey Architects

Dana Research Centre and Library at the Science Museum by Coffey Architects

Project data

Completion November 2015
Opening date March 2016
Gross internal floor area 545m2
Construction cost £925,000
Architect Coffey Architects
Client Science Museum
Structural engineer Fothergill
QS Turner & Townsend
Main contractor Paragon
Lighting consultant ZNA

Dana Research Centre and Library at the Science Museum by Coffey Architects

Dana Research Centre and Library at the Science Museum by Coffey Architects

Upcoming masterplan projects

Interactive gallery by Muf

Interactive gallery by Muf

The new interactive gallery will be the successor to the museum’s family-friendly Launch Pad and will focus on the ‘awe and wonder’ of science and maths.

Budget £4 million

Planned to complete 2016

Winner Muf

The shortlist

  • NORD Architecture
  • Grimshaw
  • Farshid Moussavi Architecture
  • Universal Design Studio
  • David Kohn Architects

Mathematics gallery by Zaha Hadid Architects

Mathematics gallery by Zaha Hadid Architects

This new gallery will focus on the stories, tools and ideas behind mathematics from the 17th century to the present day.

Budget £5 million

Planned to complete 2016

Winner Zaha Hadid Architects

The shortlist

  • Carmody Groarke
  • Hugh Broughton Architects
  • Casper Mueller Kneer
  • Adam Richards Architects
  • Universal Design Studio

Medical galleries

Medical galleries by Wilkinson Eyre Architects

Medical galleries by Wilkinson Eyre Architects

The 3,000m2 scheme will transform the entire first floor of the Science Museum creating exhibition space which will explore the past 400 years of medical science.

Budget £24 million

Planned to complete 2018

Winner Wilkinson Eyre

The shortlist

  • AL_A
  • Gareth Hoskins Architects
  • MUMA
  • Haworth Tompkins
  • Rick Mather Architects
  • Caruso St John

Science Museum entrance

Science Museum entrance

Science Museum entrance

The project to redesign the museum’s main entrance and visitor arrival experience will also deliver a new patrons’ centre.

Planned to complete 2019

The winner HAT Projects

The shortlist

  • Farshid Moussavi Architecture
  • Pringle Richards Sharratt
  • Stanton Williams
  • Universal Design Studio

Client Q&A

Karen Livingstone, director of masterplan and estates, Science Museum Group

Why did you launch the masterplan?
The Science Museum has been using a master plan approach for quite a while. The reason we launched it is so that we can look at the bigger picture and take a holistic approach to the transformation of the museum, with our visitors at the very heart of that. Rather than developing one thing at a time in isolation, it’s important to think about the total visitor experience. 

Our masterplan is a framework of decision making. It’s not a fixed to-do list. Its purpose is to capture an overall vision which includes numerous projects over time that add up to more than the sum of their parts. 

It allows us to deliver projects incrementally, and that’s important in managing the different elements. It’s our way of being in charge of our own destiny and ensuring our various developments speak directly to our key strategic ambitions over several years. It allows us to build a strong track record of delivering exciting projects which can invite new funding. We can still be innovative and forward-looking, even in the face of funding challenges. And in that climate, it’s important to thrive in order to survive.

Why are you tackling the different projects with different architects rather than a single firm?
The museum is big enough that it can really benefit from these different treatments. We don’t want everything to look the same. We also deal with a huge variety in subject matters, and they all require a different and considered approach. We have, I hope, been intelligent in choosing the architects we work with on the different projects in our masterplan – really investing in the experience they bring and their strongest competencies. We’re interested in pairing up design teams with projects where their empathy and experience can bring huge benefits.

I hope we have been intelligent in choosing the architects we work with

For example, Coffey Architects, working on our Research Centre and Library, has a strong track record in libraries. We selected Zaha Hadid for our Mathematics Gallery because she’s a mathematician - the brief was to make the gallery into a physical expression of contemporary mathematical practice. Muf architecture, who are working on our Interactive Gallery, have fantastic experience of communicating through interactive environments. Their experience lies in creating spaces in the public realm focusing on work and play. 

The area where we retain a key consistency is in the structural and service engineers, cost consultants and project managers we use and the cohesive approach we take to our overall vision – prioritising high-quality inclusive design, natural light, low energy and sustainability across all our projects. 

How long do you expect the masterplan to take to complete?
Phase one is scheduled to run up to 2019 and the opening of our new Medicine Galleries. We’re already thinking about the five to 10 years after that when we’ll look at creating bigger projects and spectacular new spaces. 

How difficult is it to make sure all the elements of the masterplan piece together? Has there been a conscious effort to make this happen?
There has been a conscious effort. It’s about applying empathy and intelligence in understanding the causation and making a very conscious effort in developing the strategy. 

Have the architects of the different schemes worked together at all or has each gallery been designed very separately?
The architects are all independent but they’re not working in a bubble. We have the same engineering, cost and project management teams linking them together. But it’s important that the curatorial and architecture teams are, significantly for creative endeavours like this, all separate and unique. 

All the schemes differ so much, has there been an overarching design guide or set of principles?
There isn’t a specific design guide, but the underlying principles are quality, inclusiveness and accessibility, sustainability, matching the design brief to the subject matter and prioritising the visitor expectation. We have a strong belief that a good quality environment can help people to engage with subject matters but also the belief in the powerful impact that design can have on the learning process.

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