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Museum of London reveals latest Smithfield plans as costs rise to £332m

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The Museum of London has revealed detailed plans of its proposed move into Smithfield Market and confirmed the scheme will now cost £332 million – more than double the original competition budget

Set to go out to public consultation later this week, the designs for the abandoned buildings near Farringdon have been drawn up by Stanton Williams, Asif Khan and Julian Harrap Architects.

The Museum of London is set to move its 7 million objects from its Powell & Moya-designed Barbican base into the West Smithfield site. It said it wanted ‘to create a new world-class, 24-hour cultural destination in the historic heart of the capital’.

The architects landed the prized job – budgeted at £250 million in 2017 – following a major contest organised by Malcolm Reading Consultants in 2016. The competition had an indicative price tag of £150 million.

Since then the team has been refining its designs for the site, part of architect Horace Jones’ 1860s Grade II-listed market complex, previously the subject of a number of failed proposals including schemes by KPF (2008) and John McAslan & Partners (2014).

The Museum of London blames the budget hike on an increase in floor space and a change in layout as buildings next door to the main 1880s General Market building have become available.

For instance, both floors of the neighbouring 1960s Poultry Market building have now been incorporated into the masterplan, alongside the General Market and the 1890s Annex Building. 

The buildings have also been found to be in a worse state than first thought and a ‘large chunk’ of cash has been required to bring them into a ‘useable state’.   

There has also been a series of unexpected discoveries across the site, such as an extra 800m² of basement space in blocked-off tunnels.

A key change from the competition-winning scheme has seen the proposed spiralling route below the central 1950s dome down into the subterranean galleries replaced with a grand linear staircase featuring a belvedere offering views over the underground spaces.

Nmt 0.0 190619 artistic impression of the galleries set in the subterranean space beneath the general market created by forbes massie

Artistic impression of the galleries set in the subterranean space beneath the General Market

Source: Forbes Massie

Artistic impression of the galleries set in the subterranean space beneath the General Market

The museum’s opening is now expected to be 2024 – three years later than originally planned.

Museum of London director Sharon Ament said the proposals would ‘transform what a museum should be’ and ‘become a shared space in the middle of it all, in the middle of London and in the middle of ideas and our shared history’.

She described the concept proposals would create a ‘totally porous space available night and day to welcome all of London’s visitors’.

She added: ‘An integral part of the Culture Mile, the new museum will educate in a world-class learning centre, inspire with our high-impact exhibitions and be a space where people come together to relax and reflect in the centre of everything.

‘It’s been remarkable working with such a creative group of architects and designers who have delved deeply into an equally remarkable set of buildings.’

In terms of how it intends to pay for the project, the Museum of London said it had already secured £192 million from the City of London Corporation and ‘a capped contribution’ of £70 million from the Mayor of London.

It has also raised £26.5 million in donations, including £10 million from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, £5 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It still needs to raise a further £44 million. 

A planning application is expected by the end of 2019.

Q&A with Paul Williams of Stanton Williams

What has been the biggest change in the proposals from the competition-winning submission?
Early in the design development stage, we carried out studies to see if the spatial organisation of the museum would benefit from occupying the ground and upper floor of the 1960s Poultry Market building, were it to become available. As a result, it has now been incorporated into the core museum masterplan, alongside the 1880s General Market building and the 1890s Annex Building (Fish Market and Red House) on West Smithfield.

Of course, as the project has developed, many more design opportunities have been considered and changes have been made. We’ve been able to study the buildings in much greater detail, had more time to reflect and debate, and very importantly had extensive dialogue with the museum team, which is so often absent at the competition stage.

However, our primary architectural aim has remained constant: to harness the sheer physicality and rawness that already exists on the site, repairing and restoring where appropriate, and through a process of decoding and translation either removing existing redundant elements or adding contemporary interventions, in order to create a clear organisational logic to the museum and provide possibilities for future transformation.

Have there been any unexpected challenges as the scheme has progressed?
The extent of deterioration of the existing buildings has turned out to be far more significant than anyone initially thought. We are still unable to access all of the building’s footprint due to safety concerns, and surveys are continuing to uncover issues that need resolving or stabilising even before the main contract work begins.

The extent of deterioration is far more significant than anyone initially thought

This has meant that in specific areas of the market we have had to develop a design approach that is robust and flexible enough to accommodate any new findings.

What are the key moves in making the museum a 24-hour attraction?
Permeability. Obviously, it is not viable to open an entire museum continuously throughout the night; however, the scheme will enable different parts of the buildings to be opened and operated independently at different times, so that the museum will have the opportunity and flexibility to respond and contribute to the day/night culture of the surrounding Smithfield area. and the proposed Culture Mile, linking to the Barbican.

The General Market, for example, will address this by having several potential secondary entrances, as well as reconfiguring some of the existing shopfronts and interiors, providing not only café and retail shops but also a wide range of display opportunities – from digital to interactive to specially curated exhibitions of objects from the museum’s vast collection.

A number of the reconfigured interiors will also provide dramatic views into the domed market interior from the street.

How have you worked with Asif Khan? Have you both had set areas?
The collaboration, together with Julian Harrap Architects, was initially formed to provide a range of perspectives to enrich our dialogue with the museum, as well as creating a team with the experience to transform the complex set of the existing market buildings. During the concept stages we all contributed to the evolution of the design, and now, appropriately due to the complexity of the project and extent of engagement needed, areas of responsibility have formed – Asif Khan focusing on the transformation of the General Market Building, and Stanton Williams focusing on the Annex Building, the adjacent Poultry Market and the underground vaulted gallery spaces.

As well as supporting both practices, Julian Harrap remains responsible for the stabilisation, repair and restoration of the existing building fabric.

Which part of the designs give you most joy?
The opportunity to help reinvent, reimagine and transform a group of existing Market Buildings into a 21st-century museum is an extraordinary commission for us – especially in an area of London so rich in history, that is so evidently woven into the surrounding medieval street patterns.

Smithfield is a perfect location the Museum of London, the place itself has so many stories to be told, and traces of the past to engage with.

Are you trying anything technically innovative here?
A number of innovative and experiential interventions are being explored, however, most of the technical research has been devoted to understand how best to sustainably transform a previous market environment into that of a world-class gallery with all its accompanying technical and environmental requirements.

What will visitors be most surprised by?
The vast scale of the buildings and the variety of dramatic and contrasting internal spaces. What is seen above ground is matched by subterranean environments that few people will have experienced or have any knowledge of.

Visitors to the permanent galleries, located below the General Market, will descend, as it were, through the sedimentary layers of London’s past into cavernous 7m-high jack arched brick vaults, and discover they are walking at the level of the original Roman settlement in London.

The Market Buildings, once a place for trading goods will become places for trading ideas

Large time-marked brick walls adjacent to Farringdon Street will separate them from the ancient River Fleet – the aim is to amplify its sound to make its presence felt – and a showcase window will provide a view of the Metropolitan and Circle Line trains going about their daily journeys.

How will it be different to any other museum experience in London?
The Market Buildings, once a place for trading goods will become places for trading ideas; spaces for the citizens of London to meet, debate and relax, capturing the voices of 21st-century London. An organisation that will not only acquire, conserve, research, communicate and exhibit but actively support Smithfield’s urban and cultural regeneration by engaging with the vibrant entrepreneurial community.

To quote the museum’s director, Sharon Arment: ‘Our building, our headquarters, our soapbox, will serve as London’s most significant portal and London’s memory.’

The buildings will provide a series of remarkably evocative and sensory spaces, unparalleled in London, that will continue to evolve along with the inhabitants of this globally important city. 

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Readers' comments (3)

  • MacKenzie Architects

    Is this sloppy journalism?
    If the floorspace has increased by more than a third, then the cost has not gone up.
    What is the new brief is the question, and is that the significant factor.

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  • It would have been sloppy (and dishonest) to pretend that the cost has not increased when clearly it has. However, given the extra space and volume being incorporated, the cost increase is outweighed by the additional value to be delivered. This makes a refreshing change to the usual story on public projects.

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  • Is it proposed to retain the poultry market roof? Allegedly the longest spanning concrete dome in the world!

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