Gareth Hoskins Architects has brought cohesion and crowds to the National Museum of Scotland but the price to pay is heavy, writes Richard Murphy. Photography by Andrew Lee and Paul Riddle
When I arrived in Edinburgh in 1978, a fellow student helpfully explained the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Edinburgh, he said was a magnificent city with no important buildings, whereas Glasgow was a straightforward gridiron plan with some amazing, world-famous buildings.
Armed with this information, I walked across Chambers Street and into what must be the exception to his sweeping rule. The Royal Scottish Museum, designed in 1861 by the naval architect Captain Francis Fowke, was Scotland’s response to the splendour of London’s Crystal Palace.
The main atrium is perhaps Edinburgh’s one truly great indoor urban space and is placed, unusually, not in the centre of the plan but parallel to Chambers Street, separated by internal stone colonnades. The atrium itself is ringed with two storeys of delicate cast iron galleries, so that views between the street and interior are seen through an intriguing veil of columns, with a spectacular rooflight above. Although the upper levels are sometimes used for display, the main atrium level is primarily a gigantic foyer, leading to four smaller triple-height galleries, which were originally also top-lit.
Placed at piano nobile level, the museum is accessed from a cascade of steps on the exterior, which enter at three-quarters level, only to pause at the colonnade before continuing to the centre of the main atrium. Last month, a major reworking of the museum, undertaken by Glasgow-based Gareth Hoskins Architects, opened to the public.
The building started life as a museum for Edinburgh University (to which it is still linked by a disused Bridge of Sighs). It became the Royal Scottish Museum in 1888, and is, in London terms, the British, Natural History, Science and V&A Museums all rolled into one. Undistinguished extensions of a lecture theatre, offices and a secondary entrance were bolted to the south side of the building in the 20th century, but the main event of recent times was Benson + Forsyth’s Museum of Scotland next door, a tour de force that opened in 1998 (AJ 07.05.98).
These two museums, each with its own entrance but interlinked inside, attempted to hold separate identities, the subtleties of which were mostly lost on the public. These two institutions have now come together to form the National Museum of Scotland.
The 1998 museum, with its clever integration of the objects within Benson + Forsyth’s space, only illustrated how neglected the original building had become, with its tired displays and ad hoc alterations.
Gareth Hoskins Architects and exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum were appointed to work on the museum in 2004. They began an ambitious study that culminated in a 15-year masterplan, a feature of which is the partial pedestrianisation of Chambers Street, an idea first mooted by Benson + Forsyth.
The Museum, closed for three years while renovations took place, has now reopened to great fanfare. Although only two of the four main atria have been completed, a rolling programme will eventually bring the other two up to the same standard. However, the alterations have gone much further than might have been expected.
Two new entrances, placed symmetrically either side of the original, take visitors at street level into what were once the basement stores. These now form a stone-vaulted entrance space that mirrors the atrium plan above, with a bistro, shop and information point.
Two new staircases emerge from under the cast iron balcony on the south side of the building and pass into the atrium. The atrium has been repaved and the cafe and rather popular fishponds removed. One or two objects have been placed here, but the main display is a lucky dip of unrelated objects stretching from basement to ceiling along the entire south wall of the atrium.
There has been a satisfying removal of ageing plasterboard partitioning, revealing the original architecture of the building. Most dramatic of all is the opening up of a new route on the museum’s north-south axis. It connects the original entrance with the secondary entrance, displaying the original arches by completely removing the 1930s rear staircase. Before the alterations, most visitors failed to venture up to the upper galleries, but two new escalators placed sequentially within this route should rectify this.
I toured the building in the company of the museum’s director, Gordon Rintoul and Gordon Gibb of Gareth Hoskins Architects on a wet, school holiday lunchtime about a week after the re-opening. It was mobbed. I have never seen a museum anywhere in the world so thronged with people. But after the children have gone back to school and the PR-induced honeymoon period is over, one needs to assess what changes have been made and why. Most controversial must surely be the new entrances.
According to Gareth Hoskins Architects, it was only late in the day that the Museum decided to close the original entrance, although Rintoul says it will still open on special occasions. It would have been naive to think they would keep the main door open – a visitor would now bypass all the new facilities if they used it.
The director says surveys showed that level access would bring more visitors. Obviously people will vote for ‘no steps’ over ‘steps’, but the old steps, ‘now used much more for seating’, according to Rintoul, lead nowhere. Indeed, the architectural price is a heavy one to pay as the entire logic of the front facade – one of the largest designed facades in Edinburgh – has been completely overturned.
Even if one accepts the main move, the way that the new entrances have been punched through the rusticated base is questionable. During the day they are non-events and shuttered by night they resemble a row of garage doors. As part of the forthcoming pedestrianisation project, the stairs could have instead been completely remodelled to make the entrance more appealing.
The new foyer space is very generous and it is always interesting to see the roughness of the behind-the-scenes architecture of a great building. But one is left asking, is it appropriate to enter such a magnificent building through refurbished cellars? Yet, having made this move, the next major decision is how to penetrate the space above.
The two staircases tempt the visitor with a hidden source of light but their timid design and apologetic location within the atrium contrasts with the magnificence of the space they reveal. The original entrance sequence gave a sense of arrival; now one is made to feel as if one is entering via the servants’ stairs. Think of Gunnar Asplund’s incredible promenade from the street to the very heart of the Stockholm Library and you can imagine what might have been, with the two spaces perhaps joined or the front colonnade used.
Having arrived, the purpose of the original atrium is not obvious; without the fishponds and cafe it seems bereft of function other than to act as a form of circulation to the galleries, so instead of one very generous entrance hall we now have two involving considerable expense and engineering finesse. Nonetheless, the new route to the southern entrance is certainly an inspired move, with direct access to the lecture theatre and a glimpse of light at the end.
The new interactive displays seem popular and tread carefully between entertainment and education. Vulnerable items have been protected at the cost of blacking out the rooflights of three atria, rather than using a more local solution and although the atria are arranged thematically there is no vertical circulation within them, as Rintoul believed stairs would spoil the spaces.
Radical surgery to important historic buildings is always controversial. In the UK, and especially in Scotland, there seems to be a belief that the more important the building the more discreet the alteration should be.
At first sight that seems a reasonable approach, but I believe the opposite to be the case. If major surgery is required (and here I am unconvinced that it actually was) then it needs to be full-blooded and designed to a very high standard. These new alterations seem to arise from a confused agenda and, almost inevitably, suffer not from their radicalism but rather from their timidity and a misplaced deference towards the original structure.
Richard Murphy is director of Richard Murphy Architects