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FIRST LOOK

Nick Cox Architects creates exhibition space in Winchester Cathedral

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The £11.5 million lottery-funded project features a passenger lift rising through the 11th-century vault for the first time in the UK

This National Lottery Heritage Fund scheme has transformed the south transept of Winchester Cathedral to create a fully-accessible three-level exhibition space.

The renovation project culminated in the opening of exhibition Kings and Scribes – The Birth of a Nation, taking visitors through 1,000 years of history.

The south transept of Winchester Cathedral previously housed vestries, offices, lavatories and an outdated exhibition at triforium (interior gallery) level, with past interventions unsympathetic to the heritage architecture. Due to the upper levels being difficult to access, it made sense to put a passenger lift in, providing connections to the Morley Library and the 12th-century Winchester Bible.

03 view of the lift and 17th century staircase from within the calefactory (now bible exhibition space)

View of lift and 17th century staircase from within the calefactory (now bible exhibition space)

There were a lot of complexities around the construction challenges of working within a heritage building, including the cathedral’s own legislation. For example, this is the first time a passenger lift has been installed within a medieval cathedral in the UK. Construction phases included conservation work and alterations to the historic fabric.

Other new architectural elements were also put in such as new mezzanine floors, staircases, balustrades, vestries and facilities for choristers.

01 view looking south to new exhibition spaces in the calefactory and at triforium level, from within the south transept

Winchester Cathedral transformation project by Nick Cox Architects

View looking south to new exhibition spaces in the calefactory

04 bible display space

Bible display space

Architect’s view

In conceiving the work and exhibition, the design team looked to the existing cathedral fabric for inspiration: not only the ambience of the architecture but also to the primary materials of glass, metalwork and wood. Screens and veils are a recurring theme within the cathedral, and this emerged as a key idea for the new design work. The lift is clad with glass containing a bronze mesh interlayer; this screens the heavy steel lift shaft and mechanics of the lift from view and creates an illusion of lightness, whilst still allowing views in and out of the lift.

The metal balustrades and gates provide another screen, and then beyond that the chains hung in the arcades add another layer; these not only screen the exhibition and lift from the main body of the cathedral, but also reduce light levels inside the exhibition protecting the delicate exhibits. Oak is used for the new floors, staircase and handrails, and mild steel and bronze for the balusters, gates and lift. The design task for us, together with the exhibition designers, was to find a language of details that would be honest and contemporary, but also sit comfortably alongside the craftsmanship and materials of the existing cathedral. 

The lift posed a significant technical challenge to the team as well as an aesthetic one. The south transept has a history of movement; one of the most popular character’s in the history of the cathedral, the diver William Walker, famously underpinned this part of the cathedral in the early 1900s. The lift shaft could not rely on the cathedral for support and needed to be designed as a self-supporting structure with a clear air gap between the shaft and the medieval vault. A 17th-century staircase was carefully dismantled and modified to accommodate the lift and new mezzanine. The lift pit was excavated by hand by the cathedral archaeologist. A piling rig was brought in in pieces and assembled inside the south transept to form eight 15m deep piles and a 9m deep bore hole for the hydraulic ram. The medieval vault above was propped whilst a hole was cut through it. The cathedral fabric was constantly monitored for movement. All of this and much more was carried out whilst the daily services and business of the cathedral continued as usual. 

Pippa Smith, architect, Nick Cox Architects 

Presentation drawings 1

South transept ground floor level plan

Client’s view

Winchester Cathedral is one of the nation’s greatest treasures and takes its place alongside outstanding examples of European architectural heritage. As guardians of Winchester Cathedral, we were fully aware of its timeless value and we invite everyone to enjoy, discover and appreciate its magnificence. 

Kings & Scribes – The Birth of a Nation marks the culmination of an eight-year project to unlock the cathedral’s stories and treasures by inspiring active engagement in the interpretation and exploration of our heritage. The project encompassed the repair and conservation of the presbytery roof, high vault and 15th-century stained glass and a learning and participation project to encourage audience engagement with three interconnected stories: A Scribe’s Tale, Decoding the Stones, and The Birth of a Nation. 

The final stage of the project was the transformation of the south transept, which is now a fully accessible state-of-the-art exhibition experience over three levels. On the ground floor, A Scribe’s Tale tells the incredible story of the 12th-century Winchester Bible, highlighting all four volumes of this magnificent manuscript. The Mezzanine Level connects visitors with the Cathedral’s monastic past, and provides access to the remarkable 17th-century Morley Library. Finally, the Triforium Gallery offers sweeping views across the South Transept and houses two outstanding exhibitions: Decoding the Stones and The Birth of a Nation

Since opening on 21 May 2019, Kings & Scribes: The Birth of a Nation has re-energised the interpretation of our story and collections. The new and innovative exhibitions have enriched our existing visitor offer and we are truly delighted with the results. 

Catherine Hodgson, marketing manager, Winchester Cathedral

Presentation drawings 2

South transept mezzanine floor level plan

Project data 

Start on site 2014
Completion date May 2019
Form of contract Management contract
Construction cost £11.5 million
Funding National Lottery Heritage Fund Grant, Winchester Cathedral Trust, Friends of Winchester Cathedral
Architect Nick Cox Architects
Client Winchester Cathedral
Exhibition designers Metaphor
Lighting consultant Sutton Vane Associates
Structural engineer SFK Consulting
M&E consultant King Shaw Associates
QS Bailey Partnership 
Archaeology John Crook
Surveyors Russell Geomatics, James Brennan Associates, Ramboll
Fire engineers The Fire Surgery
Environmental monitoring Tobit Curteis Associates
Security consultant Coastal Security Installations
Wall painting consultant McNeilage Conservation
Access consultant Hampshire County Council
CDM coordinator Hampshire County Council
Lift contractor Dyer & Butler
Principal contractor Winchester Cathedral
Main contractor Owlsworth IJP
CAD software used Vectorworks, SketchUp, AutoCAD

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