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Níall McLaughlin wins £50m Somerset House auditorium contest

Somerset House
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Níall McLaughlin Architects has won a major architectural contest to design a £50 million auditorium at the Grade I-listed Somerset House in central London

The practice defeated an impressive shortlist to win the job, for a a sunken 700-capacity venue between the New Wing and West Wing of the William Chambers-designed 18th-century building.

The scheme is set to be the architect’s first large-scale cultural project in the capital. In 2014, it won a high-profile commission for a cloistered entrance and open-air galleries at the Natural History Museum, but this was never taken forward.  

Finalists in the Somerset House contest – which received 69 entries – included Adjaye Associates, Barozzi/Veiga with DRDH, David Chipperfield Architects, Flores Prats with AOC Architects, Haworth Tompkins with Citizen’s Design Bureau, Snohetta with Orms, and Studio Seilern. Images of the winning and shortlisted schemes have yet to be revealed. 

The project will replace an outdated 1960s conference centre with a flexible and ‘dynamic forum’ larger than any other events space within the Neoclassical former government complex and will also include a new courtyard-level public space. Purcell previously completed a feasibility study for the scheme.

The competition jury comprised Somerset House director Jonathan Reekie, Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield Architects, Illuminated River director Sarah Gaventa, artist Paul Purgas, musician Brian Eno, arts producer Martine d’Anglejan Chatillon and Paul Goswell of Delancey. The two-stage contest was organised by Colander on behalf of the Somerset House Trust.

Somerset House said: ‘The jury was unanimous that Níall McLaughlin Architects’ presentation gave a strong sense of design direction and clarity of thought, with an unmatched commitment to sustainability and a distinctly creative and collaborative approach.

‘The jury felt confident that in their hands, the team would deliver Somerset House’s vision of creating a world-class performance space to make and showcase new, cutting-edge multidisciplinary work to new, younger and more diverse audiences.’

Somerset House was designed in 1776 to replace an earlier riverside palace owned by the Duke of Somerset. The enormous building hosted various government departments and learned societies before being transformed in phases into a cultural centre.

Dixon Jones drew up a masterplan for the site in 1998 and transformed its quadrangle, which had been used as car park, into a water feature and events area. The practice also created a River Terrace Café while Donald Insall Associates completed a major overhaul of the south building.

The latest project will transform the area between the New Wing and West Wing which is known as West Street and currently features a conference centre and service yard. The shortlisted teams each received £2,000 to participate in the design phase and interviews. Applications were evaluated 70 per cent on quality and 30 per cent on deliverability.

The project is scheduled to complete in 2024.

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