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FIRST LOOK

What lies beneath: Command of the Oceans by Baynes and Mitchell

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The outside bet for this year’s Stirling Prize has its origins in the discovery of the hidden bones of a ship – which is itself somewhat hidden in plain sight

The 2017 Stirling Prize is on the horizon. The shortlist this year has been rather a case of tales of the unexpected: an eclectic, slightly surprising mix that includes Hastings Pier, Amin Taha’s nursery-rhyme inspired Barrett’s Grove apartment block and Rogers Stirk Harbour’s well-mannered extension to the British Museum –but no major housing scheme and no Tate Modern extension. But perhaps the most off-the-radar project to be shortlisted  – ironically, given its nautical name – has been Command of the Oceans at Chatham in Kent.

Designed by Baynes and Mitchell Architects, this project provides a new entrance building, galleries and improved visitor facilities to the town’s historic dockyard, which closed as an active Royal Naval base in 1984. The story of the dockyard – where the majority of the UK’s wooden warships were constructed over hundreds of years – is told through displays in the galleries, but also through the fabric of the historic buildings themselves – many of which are Scheduled Ancient Monuments. In addition, interpretative material is dotted throughout a massively improved public realm, tweaked by Baynes and Mitchell, which stitches together this long-neglected naval industrial landscape.

10 19x24cm 300dpi externalnorth02 hélène binet

10 19x24cm 300dpi externalnorth02 hélène binet

Source: Hélène Binet

The reason for Command of the Oceans remaining stubbornly out-of-focus as a building – apart from its unbuilding-like name – is perhaps down to its relative invisibility on the outside, where to is difficult to appreciate the extent and complexity of the project. Its primary exterior structure is deceptive in its simplicity – a black sentinel shed, like a witch’s hat. The colour and acutely angled gable of this provides a clear but understated contrast and accent to the bank of cream-coloured Georgian sheds, with their more relaxed gables, to either side. But it is decisive in its effect: a link building that together with a major renovation and reworking of the adjacent historic structures, knits the whole ensemble together.

The project had its origins in 1995, when the timbers of an unknown ship were discovered beneath layers of floorboards in one of the Georgian sheds at the dockyard. Hailed as the most significant naval archaeological discovery since the Mary Rose, these timbers turned out to be from the 1756 HMS Namur, a second-rate warship, but one that fought at many of the most significant naval engagements of the late 18th century, including the Battle of Cape St Vincent with Horatio Nelson in 1797. Its remains – forgotten since it was broken up in 1833 – became the focus for a major grant-funded conservation and reuse project to create a sense of arrival for telling the story of the dockyard and its people.

01 19x24cm 300dpi linkbuilding01 hélène binet

01 19x24cm 300dpi linkbuilding01 hélène binet

Source: Hélène Binet

The main link building fills the strip between two Georgian sheds. Its simple gabled shed form echoes in its exposed timber struts and timber lining, the materials of the flanking Georgian structures – but in a lighter, slimmed-down contemporary vein. It is raised a metre above ground level, approached along a gently sloped steel ramp from the car park to the north. This leads up into the long space, which with a large glazed opening at its south end, maintains views through and orientation within the larger site for visitors. By being slightly raised a semi-basement space is created beneath where visitors can view the remains of the Namur – laid out like a giant Airfix model-like kit of parts.

The entrance space accesses a reception desk and café to the left, while to the right a board-marked, concrete-lined ramp leads down to interpretative galleries, and then to a semi-basement under the café – a space reminiscent of being below-deck in a ship – in which the timber bones of the Namur can be viewed. As evocative in their smell as their sight, these sum up the rich layering of this fascinating site and its history as an early military-industrial complex.

Coto 03 ground floor plan with notation

Coto 03 ground floor plan with notation

Source: Baynes and Mitchell

Section FF

Project data

Start on site July 2014
Completion May 2016
Gross internal floor area 1,800m²
Form of contract Traditional, GCWorks
Construction cost £8,130,000
Construction cost per m² £2,322 (excluding cost of exhibition fit-out)
Architect Baynes and Mitchell Architects
Client Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
Structural engineer Price & Myers
M&E consultant Skelly & Couch
Quantity surveyor Robert Dollin & Co Ltd
Conservation architect Ptolemy Dean Architects
Experiential designer consultant  Land Design Studio
Timber decay consultants Ridout Associates 
Archaeologist Wessex Archaeology 
Access consultants Access=Design 
Project manager Artelia UK
CDM coordinator 3CRisk
Approved building inspector JM Partnership
Main contractor (external works) Raymond Brown Construction Ltd
Main contractor (main build) Fairhurst Ward Abbots Ltd WW Martin Ltd
CAD software used Vectorworks

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