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Museum of London’s £250m+ move to Smithfield: ‘It’s like a giant game of Tetris’

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Later this summer the Museum of London will consult on plans for its much-anticipated move into the abandoned Smithfield market. So what has been going on since the appointment of a high-profile design team for the £250 million-plus job in 2016? 

Today the General Market building at the western end of London’s Smithfield market near Farringdon is in a bit of a mess.

Yet in a few years time this rotting Victorian hulk and its enormous basements will become the new home for the 43-year-old Museum of London, which is moving from its current Powell & Moya-designed Barbican base, half a mile away.

A tour of the building with Museum of London director Sharon Ament and its director of transformation David Spence, shows how much work has already been done investigating, recording, dismantling and stabilising this historic market block.

Part of architect Horace Jones’ 1860s Grade II-listed Smithfield complex, the building has been forensically peeled back in a process that has thrown up numerous surprises, including the discovery of a warren of forgotten cellars. 

As a result, the museum’s latest concept plans, drawn up by Stanton Williams and Asif Khan and conservation expert Julian Harrap three years ago, have had to change. The biggest shift has been the rethink of a showpiece circular stairwell proposed to sit under the existing dome.

In a couple of months a new set of drawings and images will be revealed. So how far has the museum come on its mission to create an internationally renowned attraction?

Rediscovered vaults and cellars at museum of london smithfield site april 2019

Rediscovered vaults and cellars at museum of london smithfield site april 2019

Source: Richard Waite

Rediscovered vaults and cellars at Museum of London, Smithfield site (April 2019)

Until the museum’s involvement, the General Market building had been effectively rotting for the past 30 years.

Numerous proposals to redevelop the site came and went, faltering before even starting on site.

In 2014, former communities secretary Eric Pickles rejected John McAslan’s controversial plans for the market, agreeing with the planning inspector that the architect’s scheme to drop 5,700m² of shops and 21,220m² of office space into the building would have ‘an extremely harmful effect on the significance of the General Market as an important non-designated heritage asset’.

Before that, in 2008, an equally controversial proposal by KPF for a major commercial block, which would have demolished much of the empty 19th-century market buildings, was also blocked, following a public inquiry.

But in 2016, with the blessing of the market’s owner, the Corporation of London, Malcolm Reading Consultants launched a competition for a team to reimagine the site as a new home for the museum.

It was won that summer by the Stanton Williams-led team, which was selected from a shortlist including BIG, Caruso St John, Lacaton & Vassal Architects and Sergison Bates.

Since then, apart from some positive funding news – the City of London Corporation and London mayor Sadiq Khan confirmed they had pulled together £180 million towards the initial £250 million fundraising target – little has been seen or heard of the project.

That does not mean nothing has happened. 

Once the contest was concluded the museum began taking a proper look over the complex site, which has the River Fleet running below and underground train tunnels through it or alongside it. Following inspection works, the team found the buildings were in a worse state of disrepair than was first anticipated.

‘It has been a journey of discovery,’ says Ament. ’Julian Harrap has described it as “the last ruin in London”.’

She adds: ’We’ve been crawling all over the building. When we started we knew very little and at the competition stage the teams had little more than a cursory look.

’Now we have unpeeled the layers and at each stage we’ve considered how we can work with the character of the buidling to make the best museum it can possibly be.’

Stanton Williams  UK  with Asif Khan  Julian Harrap  J L Gibbons and Plan A 1

Stanton Williams UK with Asif Khan Julian Harrap J L Gibbons and Plan A 1

The original stairs to the basement in the competition-winning scheme, which have now been scrapped

The initial designs have evolved as a result. The proposed spiralling route below the central 1950s dome down into the subterranean galleries has been replaced by a grand linear staircase relocated to the north-west corner of the General Market building, with a belvedere offering views over the underground spaces.

This move is intended to make better use of the exhibition space in the basement and to help with the flow of visitors. About 2 million are expected each year.

As the team explored the basement areas and adjacent yard used to store the City’s road salt, they found a number of bricked-up vaults. Once these were opened up, the museum realised it had an extra 800m² of space to play with. This massive and unexpected find could form part of a later phase of development.

Imagining a museum in the space has, at times, been a conundrum. As director of programmes at the Museum of London David Spence says: ’It has been like a giant game of design Tetris. We’ve been undertaking the extraordinarily difficult task of mapping our designs and museum functions onto these existing listed buildings.’

As a result of the revelations and the numerous design tweaks the deadline for opening, initially envisaged for 2021, has been pushed back to 2024.

Even that depends on the proposals achieving planning permission where the earlier attempts failed. The museum will go out to initial consultation on its plans, including a masterplan for the wider site, this summer. A second round will be held in the autumn before a planning application is finally lodged at the end of the year.    

One of the issues yet to be resolved is how big the museum site will actually be. The original competition brief include the neighbouring poultry market and a triangular annexe building to the south of the site. But that might not yet be incorporated and there is a possibility it could be used as a separate arts-led commercial space for the Corporation, which owns that building too. Both the museum and this annexe fall within the City’s Culture Mile initiative.

And while the museum can also take the space below the neighbouring poultry [as set out in the competition brief] there is doubt about the upper floors due to extant tenancies.

Ideally, it is understood, the museum would want take all of the general market and all of the poultry market as well as the annexe block. This will be the scheme that goes out for public consultation.

But, while some of these elements and the overall budget currently remain vague and have the potential to shift, there are some immovable features and core threads which run through the proposals. 

A key commitment has been a fabric-first approach to the existing buildings.

Ament says: ’One of the big things for us is to “land lightly”. Our aim is to enhance this existing eco-system, rather than destroy it. [Also,] we don’t want [the interiors] to be overfacing or made so that you feel diminished.’

David spence and sharon ament museum of london smithfield site april 2019 (9)

David Spence and Sharon Ament from the Museum of London at the West Smithfieldmithfield site april 2019 (9)

Source: Richard Waite

David Spence and Sharon Ament from the Museum of London at the West Smithfield site, April 2019

There is also a drive to open up the museum with gateways punched through it – ’porosity’ is the term used by Ament – and to make it an all-hours destination. The scheme will include a shop and café as well as opening up some of the long-shut units around its perimeter.

’The challenge is to make it 24/7,’ says a hopeful Ament. ’But maybe it’s impossible.’

Another definite ‘keeper’ from the contest bid is the proposal to put large glass panes in the underground exhibiton spaces so that visitors can watch the Thameslink trains hurtling back and forth just inches away in their tunnels. Arup has been working on the idea and the museum is keen for the noise of the trains to be heard in the controlled gallery spaces.  

So what has Ament made of a journey, which in some ways, has only just begun?

She says: ’I was called by the City in 2014 [after Eric Pickles threw out John McAslan’s plans for the site] about whether we’d thought of relocating here.

’I said that I’d take a look. Once I had, how could I turn down this opportunity?’

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