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Caruso St John criticises ‘unfortunate’ designs for V&A Museum of Childhood

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Caruso St John Architects has called for a rethink of De Matos Ryan’s ‘unfortunate’ proposals to overhaul its extension to the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London 

De Matos Ryan recently unveiled its competition-winning vision for a major £3.3 million revamp of the institution’s flagship Grade II*-listed museum in Bethnal Green.

But Caruso St John, the architect behind the 2006 extension of JW Wild’s historic ironwork building, has spoken out against the scheme’s ‘substantial changes’ to the outside of the entrance hall.

The 2016 Stirling Prize-winning practice is concerned about a new basement entrance, designed to improve access for school groups and buggies. It claims this adversely affects the building’s symmetry.

Peter St John said: ‘The two entrances are connected across the forecourt with a rambling landscape of steps, twisted ground surfaces and topiary. We think it’s the wrong thing to do at the front of a public building.

‘There are other more sympathetic ways to achieve the aims of the project, and we hope it is reconsidered.’

He added: ‘It is not cool for architects to complain about changes to their buildings. A museum needs to evolve, and if clients want to change things, they can. And we certainly support the V&A’s further investment in the museum, which is much-needed, especially in the display of its collections.

‘But we care about this project, and we think the significant changes proposed to the front are not appropriate, either as alterations to our building or as changes to the setting of J W Wild’s building.’

The scheme has also been criticised by architectural critic and AJ columnist Ellis Woodman, who said while De Matos Ryan were ‘good architects’, he hoped the V&A would reconsider the practice’s new entrance which looked certain to ‘mess up a very fine work of architecture’. 

He added: ‘Where the Caruso St John project took pains to maintain the symmetrical bearing of the original building, the proposed steps, landscaping and entrance porch introduce an asymmetry that will make it hard for the various periods of construction to read holistically. The proposals also don’t feel respectful of the grammar of the earlier work. 

‘Caruso St John’s project is, in effect, a portico so adding a porch to one side feels highly tautological.’

But defending the scheme, Philippa Simpson, acting director of design & FuturePlan at the V&A, said the building had a ‘long history’ of development and redevelopment.

’De Matos Ryan’s scheme was unanimously chosen during the competition, and has been very positively received,’ she said. ‘Building on the success of Caruso St John’s 2006 project, it makes the building even more accessible and responds specifically to the needs of visitors arriving with children, from large school groups to those with buggies.

’The re-landscaped exterior was developed through co-design with a number of local community groups, as a means of maximising the potential of the foreground of the museum, inviting visitors to enter, play and explore.’

’This transformation is intended - above all - to foster the architects of the future, and has been designed in response to the changing needs and interests of our audiences’.

De Matos Ryan was brought in to deliver a ‘base build’ redesign of the museum’s interior spaces which host thousands of childhood objects from the 16th century to the present day.

The redevelopment of the museum is intended to make the museum more immersive and interactive for younger visitors and was co-designed with children from local primary schools.

It will also deliver four new interactive galleries along with improved retail and catering areas, new back-of-house facilities, upgraded learning spaces and new toilets.

An outdoor play area and new lower ground entrance will also be delivered. 

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