[STIRLING SHORTLIST IN DETAIL]: Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is restored and revamped by Rick Mather Architects
The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology’s original 17th-century building was described in a 1706 publication, The New World of Words, as ‘a neat Building in the City of Oxford’. Rick Mather, a fastidiously neat modernist, has upped that particular ante with a virtuoso design that suggests an architectural equivalent of Jenga, creating a precisely poised matrix of solids and voids.
The £61 million transformation of the Ashmolean was Britain’s biggest cultural project since Norman Foster’s reinvention of the British Museum’s Great Court. The extension of Charles Cockerell’s 19th-century building doubled the museum’s display space. Mather and project architect Stuart Cade have created a domain of bridges, crisply detailed galleries and subtle shifts of lighting in a realm whose vistas penetrate one another in enfilades and spatial overlays.
The Ashmolean was Britain’s biggest cultural project since Norman Foster’s reinvention of the British Museum’s Great Court.
This produces a panoptic collage of complex visual progressions through different volumes of space; in a single glance, one might glimpse at least four exhibition spaces and two bridges crossing at different levels.
The architecture blurs scholarly territories, supporting the museum’s new display strategy: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time. One almost expects to encounter Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot in quizzically astonished mode.
a virtuoso design that suggests an architectural equivalent of Jenga
A few days before the Ashmolean re-opened, Andrew Hamilton, the newly appointed vice chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: ‘I was expecting to find a place somewhat bound by the past. Actually, what I’ve discovered is a place hurtling towards the future.’ The Ashmolean’s architectural implant is not quite hurtling towards the future, but we are far from the ghost of the stuffed dodo (Elias Ashmole’s most legendary exhibit).
The museum shifts from the neo-classical building into a modernist segment whose programmatic structure depends on two axes, running front to back, a cross-axis connecting them, and two staircases rising through the whole six-storey height of the extension. Stephen Greenberg, whose firm Metaphor designed the gallery displays, rightly queried the ‘Piranesi with the lights on’ whiteness of the interior; his jewel-box display units add important contrasts of illumination and shadow.
At the heart of the extension is a central atrium glowing with polished plaster, and languidly figured with the glinting steel handrail of an asymmetric staircase. It is the one moment of singular architectural drama, the only place in the extension where volumetric space alone takes a polite grip on the senses.
‘I was expecting to find a place somewhat bound by the past. Actually, what I’ve discovered is a place hurtling towards the future.’
From here, one can see Islamic and European ceramics, traded objects from the Far East, a Samurai suit of armour, 19th-century Meiji pottery, and part of an ornately carved door snaffled in India by TE Lawrence. But this condition of multi-faceted encounter can be experienced almost anywhere in the extension: the architecture supports a curatorial strategy in which objects from different cultures, but similar historical periods, can be seen at the same time.
This would infuriate the patrician German visitor in 1710, who deplored the presence of ‘ordinary folk’ in the museum who ‘impetuously handle everything in the usual English manner’. Mather’s cabinet of curiosities is already a popular success. But it’s the way his arrangement challenges the Ashmolean’s curators that may be its greatest virtue.
Jay Merrick, architecture critic, The Independent
Question & Answer: Rick Mather, director, Rick Mather Architects
Are you surprised that half this year’s shortlist is made up of museums?
No, although it is a bit of a coincidence that these three long-term projects should all be completed in the same year.
What were the challenges of working with Britain’s oldest museum?
Doubling the exhibition space on the site and creating 39 new galleries, while ensuring that the new space was easy to understand and use by visitors and staff was incredibly important. As, of course, was maintaining the integrity of the historic collections, while re-presenting them in a coherent and fresh manner.
How did you respect the existing fabric but still make your mark?
We carried out detailed historic research to establish what was important to save. Cockerell’s original design is complemented both in plan and section by a ‘U’ of similar scale double-height galleries, which link his two axes together through the extension. Two new atria terminate his two axes, and bring natural light down to the lowest level while providing views out over the city. Staircases step up through these atria. The high galleries and bridges open into them and long views link the extension back to Cockerell’s original building.
Explain the strategy that you and exhibition designer Metaphor conceived for the Ashmolean. What relevance does this have for future museum design?
By ensuring that all routes, levels and galleries are visually interconnected, the idea of ‘Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time’ became feasible as an exhibition concept, as well as an intellectual aim. It is an idea of great simplicity, which should influence any museum design that has a range of historic and cultural collections. It makes teaching inspirational and urges the visitor towards an historic perception, stimulating curiosity and new ideas.
Describe the process of modelling and designing such a complex network of spaces.
Having drawn-up and computer modelled the scheme, we built a very large physical study model that proved an invaluable tool for detailed design. The model came apart in sections, which allowed different options to be checked and developed, and scaled photographs of the museum’s collection placed in the galleries.
The last time your practice was nominated for the Stirling Prize was in 1998. How important is it for you to win this time around?
Extremely important, as recognition of the exceptional work of the design team, our museum colleagues, Metaphor and major donors, which has made the building happen.
Architects Rick Mather Architects
Location Oxford, UK
Floor area 10,000m2
Cost £61 million
Start on site March 2007
Contract duration 30 months
Form of contract Traditional Two Stage Tender
Total cost £61 million
Cost per m²£3,300
Client University of Oxford
Exhibition design Metaphor
Structural engineer Dewhurst Macfarlane
M&E consultant Atelier Ten
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Project manager Mace
Acoustics Sandy Brown Associates
Lighting Kevan Shaw Lighting Design
Main contractor BAM Construct UK
Annual CO2 emissions 44.3kg/m2