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The Garden Museum – slowly does it

Ellis Woodman
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Dow Jones Architects’ remodelling and extension exemplifies the merits of slow, incremental development, says Ellis Woodman

Garden museum david grandorge

Garden museum david grandorge

Next month, work is set to complete on Dow Jones Architects’ remodelling and extension of the deconsecrated church on the banks of the Thames opposite Tate Britain that serves as the home of the Garden Museum. It has been a long time coming. The museum’s founders, John and Rosemary Nicholson, took on the church in 1981, having averted a plan that would have seen it levelled and its site given over to a coach park. For a quarter of a century, they and their successors muddled heroically along, wheeling the exhibits out of the nave every time the space was required for lectures or for one of the private events that provided the institution’s revenue stream. 

I first visited in 2008 when the newly appointed director, Christopher Woodward, invited me to join a jury tasked with appointing the architect of a temporary exhibition gallery. The budget was almost impossibly tight but Dow Jones’s winning proposal dramatically transformed the museum’s fortunes and set the groundwork for a decade of subsequent interventions. 

For all the expense lavished on the Design Museum, my overwhelming impression was of the daunting acreage of an ultimately generic space

The opportunity for an architect to maintain such a prolonged engagement with a site is rare and, in this case, has undoubtedly enriched the final outcome. The building and the programme it houses have grown in parallel – a slow and incremental process from which one of the most individual and engaging museums in London has emerged. 

The contrast with some other recent additions to the capital’s cultural infrastructure is pronounced. For all the expense that has been lavished on the new Design Museum, the overwhelming impression I took away from a recent visit was one of anxiety about the daunting acreage of beautifully detailed but ultimately generic space. A Ferrari or Versace retrospective will always be guaranteed to conjure up the crowds required to bankroll what has now become a very substantial institution, but it is going to be a struggle to sustain a programme capable of investing this yawning interior with daily life.  

The directors of Tate Modern are unlikely to be troubled anytime soon by a lack of audience, but while they may have no problem populating their newly extended building with an endless supply of international tourists, the question remains as to what demand the gallery’s enormous recent expansion serves. The new shop, viewing gallery, restaurant, café and members’ room all duplicate facilities that one might think were already more than amply supplied. 

Perhaps more critically still, while some of the very large new galleries might be considered a welcome addition to the repertoire of spaces, their cumulative effect is to further expose the poverty of the gallery’s holdings. There are at least a dozen museums of modern art across the world more richly stocked than Tate Modern, and none stretches what it has so thinly. As at the Design Museum, one is left with the sense of an institution that has built a facility that it lacks the capacity to meaningfully inhabit. 

Such dangers are exponentially amplified when buildings are commissioned for institutions that don’t yet exist. From The Public in West Bromwich to the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, recent history offers no shortage of cautionary tales about major public facilities that were conjured out of nothing only to close within years of opening. It is to be hoped that Dundee’s new Victoria and Albert Museum outpost has been imagined more convincingly. 

So often the default impulse of museum directors eager to leave a legacy and of city authorities keen to consolidate their brand is to build now and to build big. The Garden Museum offers a powerful case for the merits of patience. Developed over many years, its complex programme and highly specific architecture are mutually supporting and inextricably linked.

This column was published in the Built to rent issue – click here to buy a copy 

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