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The Crafting of Architecture by Christopher Sykes

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

On Thursday, I was walking along the foreshore to see what the tide had brought in. There were mainly shells, lots of them apart from one.  This looked like a small bone, perhaps the backbone of something. Then I saw the short shaft was hollow with a bit of a cradle at the end.  It dawned on me that it was the stem of a small clay pipe. Its crafted architecture wasn’t just old, it was very old.  It immediately unlocked my imagination. It had to have been discarded by an old tar from one of those many centuries old ships that had sunk in the Solent. How nearly right I was.

On Friday, my imagination was further unlocked while my senses were forced into a completely different realm, almost beyond comprehension. I was baffled and bathed inside an envelope of contemporary architecture which has turned conventional design upside down and inside out. The place is so unlike the living fragrance conjured up by the name Mary Rose; instead it is the personal, stunning and emotionally charged tomb of 465 men. Of course, it’s Henry VIII’s flagship - born 1511, died 1545, resurrected 1982, living again 2013.

Much has been written about the new Mary Rose Museum within Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. It’s recognised as a stunning collaboration between Wilkinson Eye who designed the structure with Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will responsible for the interior.

Many are now familiar with its unique shape and its purpose. One description says it is like a doughnut, the colour of a ghost ship with Carvel construction and complex toroidal geometry that would be impossible without sophisticated computers.  Even if I understood what that meant, it’s not my language to friends. I tell them it’s like a huge flattened cockle, clad in sombre black timber planks to reflect the tar of maritime history and with the snout of a monstrous sea serpent, none of which would be possible to conceive without sophisticated imagination and design genius. More lofty friends scoff and explain that, in mathematics, a toroid is a doughnut-shaped object, such as an O-ring in the form of a solenoid. Maybe but this building still looks like a large windowless prison roofed in zinc. Its appearance is so unlike its immediate dry-docked neighbour, Nelson’s fully exposed nemesis, all black and tan and ropey and just aching to get out to sea and enjoy another victory.

This structure is unique because of the uniqueness of the architects’ brief. At its simplest and yet at its most complex this was a directive to design and house 19,000 Tudor artefacts and a pile of old rotting timbers. They probably added, ‘Oh, and by the way, while you’re doing that, please don’t touch the timbers, just build round them, because we’ve been spraying for over thirty years and will continue to do so after opening when we’ll spend another five heat drying the whole thing out.’

Unless you have studied the history of how this shipwreck finished up on its side, it takes a moment to appreciate that you are looking at only the half which was embedded in silt because the other half was swept away. That half is now vertical and you gaze from gallery floors which mirror and run parallel with the original deck levels. On one side you look into the glazed timber hothouse; on the other you see the original artefacts displayed in context. You can even peer straight down from top to bowel emboldened by stepping on dizzy glass floors.

What clings is the clever way in which the designers have adopted a completely new building element. It’s an element shunned in normal museums, certainly irrelevant to how the 17th century Vasa wreck is housed in Stockolm’s harbour and generally unwelcome in our everyday lives. Here is none of that natural daylight which we architects embrace to flood our interiors and enhance wellbeing and enjoyment for the occupants. Instead, light’s unwelcome brother - dark - has been scooped up in handfuls and used to dominate all other building materials. Dark with its cousin - gloom - have been empowered to embody images of dark days, demise, death and personal demons. 

What really matters, and is so fascinating in this temple, is the detritus of everyday life, unseen for nearly 500 years. Skilful pinpoint lighting makes it possible to blot out the structure and the huge cannons of war and focus on the very smallest detail - the wooden chest contents of one sailor, the diseased chest bones of another. It’s all because the designers have used their dark as both a tool and a guide, to create an atmosphere which lightens your understanding and stimulates your curiosity about the thousands of bits of minutiae which abound around.

The Mary Rose Museum is a classroom where imagination, excitement and memories for children and adults alike will be long and lasting and sensational. This is not vanity architecture.  It is diametrically different to so many of those projects born, for example, out of the new Schools programme which were expensively conceived  under the mistaken belief that the education of children is as much influenced by superior building products and stunning aesthetics as it is by great teachers.  This is a great teacher without all that cloying nonsense. Yes, it is the epitome of the crafting of architecture.

And did my broken pipe stem come from that wreck?  Sadly, no. The Mary Rose sank several  decades before tobacco was first inhaled in England!

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