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Eric Parry completes Holburne museum extension

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[First look] Eric Parry Architects’ has completed its contentious extension to Bath’s Grade I-listed Holburne Museum

The practice originally won the project following a contest back in 2002, however Parry’s initial proposals for a glass and ceramic addition to the landmark were rejected in July 2007, despite being recommended for approval by Bath and North East Somerset Council’s planning officers.

Parry was more successful with his revised, slightly shorter scheme (see My Holburne extension in Bath has unleashed violent and surreal feelings - AJ 06.12.07).

The £11.2 million project included renovation works to the existing Georgian building.

The museum is set to re-open to the public on Saturday 14 May.

The architect’s view

The original building terminating the 600m-long 18th century vista from Robert Adam’s bridge was designed by Harcourt Masters and accommodated a hotel, gaming rooms and a covered garden facing terrace for musicians. It formed the gateway to Sydney Gardens, a late 18th century pleasure garden which unlike all its other famous namesakes survives.

The building as we found it was the shell of the Georgian original, gutted and transformed into a museum to the designs of Reginald Blomfield between 1913-16. His brief was to house the collection of William Holburne. Blomfield, an authority on French Renaissance architecture turned the garden gateway into the museum entrance by placing his neoclassical stair on the passage axis to the garden. He created two fine and contrasting rooms, a top lit picture gallery at the second floor level and a grand ballroom overlooking the town on the first floor. He severed the building from Sydney Gardens with an exedral garden wall which still exits but now with a gateway created a decade ago by the trustees as a precursor to their more ambitious plans for the museum.

He installed a lift which arrived three steps short of the upper gallery in order not to disturb the lower flanking walls of the rear façade which had no garden door and like his museum in Lincoln created a foreboding rear elevation to what had originally been a Janus headed building of opposite characters, Town – Garden.

Given the sensitivity of any contemporary architectural ‘appearance’ on hallowed territory (Grade I listed building, World Heritage site, listed landscape) at competition stage, I had assumed the new exhibition gallery would be best at first floor level allowing a more modest second floor extension. This formed the basis of an initial HLF application, which included pavilions to either side of Blomfield’s flanking colonnades. This application was rejected on grounds of costs and regional status, but with encouragement to return with more modest proposals.

With the arrival of Alexandra Sturgis as director a clear curatorial brief was given, principally that the new gallery should be at the same level as Blomfield’s top lit gallery for flexibility and for the new gallery to be top lit. This also served well to allow parallel needs like environmental control, the levels of which rise through the section of the building. At the same time I realised that we could house the more domestic scaled permanent collection on two levels in the extension within Blomfield’s ballroom section height. Common to the two stages was the intention to create a garden room at garden level with the potential for either archive or education use at basement level. The obvious architectural repercussion was that this would present a taller structure with its bulk most overt at the upper level blind gallery walls.

The other essential to the project was to reposition the Blomfield stair to open access to the garden once more. These opportunities were more or less mirrored by the local authority conservation officers’ view that they were heretical.

Maintaining the simplicity of a single stair building, allowable with a sophisticated fire escape strategy, and the compatibility of the new and old section have been key to creating a building that will be efficient to run and therefore within a broad definition sustainable.

The ‘stack’ of new spaces and their contrasting relations to the views and garden consist of; blind gallery walls uppermost; gauged openings to double height intermediate levels; transparency at the garden level; and gave rise to the tripartite arrangement of the wall section. Given the floating nature of the extension I ruled out the use of stone which is so well articulated and logical on the classical building with its rusticated base carrying the load of the building fabric terminating with the delicate silhouettes of the stone urns.

Materially the compatibility that glazed ceramic and glass offered seemed a good way to work from the blind top wall (ceramic) to the lightest possible veil of glass at the ground. The mediating middle level is consequently a combination of the two with the glass a protective screen to the large scale container of the Holburne collection. The plan of the new extension was determined by the need for space and constrained by the inviolable perspective view down Great Pulteney Street. The largest plan area is given to the new top floor gallery, the first floor and mezzanine are drawn in by 800mm and to dissolve the apparent structure at ground floor level two smaller piers are offset from the corner at three corners, the fourth being a stabilizing fin wall that also carries a services riser and a new lift.

The ceramic panels were the largest the manufacturer could produce, necessitating a wall thickness of 50mm, and to avoid a grid from my earliest sketches I envisaged a series of ceramic fins that at the upper level would conceal the vertical joint and at the intermediate level would cover the stabilizing posts that carry the outer glass skin.

The laminated low iron glass veil is free of complex jointing creating apparent lightness. With the inner glazing at ground floor it forms a triple glazed wall that ventilates to reduce heat gain. The layers of reflection on the skin of the building in its foliate setting and the depth of the ceramic glaze (achieved by 2 slip coats single fired) are intentionally ambiguous. Ambiguity was an element of the architectural order of the building in the artificial condition of a garden setting within the town. The orientation of the original building reinforces this difference, sun lit to Great Pulteney Street and shadowed in the garden.

Beyond the immediate project the hope is that it will be a catalyst to recreate a contemporary garden as a world in which leisure and imagination can flourish once again reinstating the potential for Sydney Gardens to become a destination for the City of Bath.

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