The Soane Museum Refurbishment by Caruso St John, London
In the latest chapter of the Soane Museum, Adam Caruso discusses the process of introducing contemporary elements for display into an eccentric historic palimpsest
‘It’s not every architect’s dream to work alongside another architect’, says Adam Caruso, introducing his work in Sir John Soane’s Museum, ‘but we [together with his partner Peter St John] are interested in Soane and in that period of architecture.’ This project comprises four rooms in No 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the first of the three adjacent houses Soane acquired and which are slowly being reintegrated into a unified institution. Three of the rooms, two gallery spaces on the first floor which were the archive and research spaces and a shop on the ground where Eva Jiricna’s glass display cases were installed in the 1990s, were completed in the middle of 2012. The fourth, for education, is yet to go on site.
Tim Knox, the museum’s curator, explains Caruso St John’s appointment. Upgrading the museum overall is intended to ‘do honour to Soane’s original concept, especially in No 13’ where the most famous spaces are. ‘We have the great good fortune to have both the flanking houses designed by Soane … they are extraordinary water-wings, sustaining Soane’s extraordinary vision.’ But they also represent ‘an opportunity’, he pauses, ‘in fact a duty to work with contemporary architects and designers just as Soane was’, and ‘we weren’t going to shirk the opportunity … that we needed to do something which would equal [previous curator] Peter [Thornton]’s vision with Eva Jiricna … it’s important to continue that tradition’.
Much of the ongoing work in the museum, such as recreating the two chapel-like spaces off the main stair in No 13, dedicated in ascending order to Shakespeare and Charity, demands painstakingly archaeological exactness. But ‘we don’t feel we’ve been cravenly traditionalist here’ in the galleries and shop, continues Knox, shuddering at what one distinguished architectural commentator said on seeing the them, ‘Just think what John Simpson could have done!’
So how did Caruso St John tackle this challenge? First of all, says Caruso, it was an ‘amazing opportunity to learn more about Soane. It was a big piece of research you have to do, but it’s a pleasure to do it’. He sees Soane as one of a small number of architects who ‘think about the history of culture and architecture and construction – you have to think about those things – Soane … found it difficult but he was very engaged’.
Their brief called for a series of display cases to fit within the two first-floor rooms whose decoration was being researched with a view to reinstatement. Eventually it was decided to restore them to a scheme Soane devised in the 1790s, a bright crimson in the front room and more muted tones in the back chamber, Mrs Soane’s bedroom. Its sharp effect disturbs Ptolemy Dean, who spent years researching Soane’s remoter country houses in these rooms, but, ripostes Knox, ‘When we took down the big portrait of Soane to lend to Dulwich [Picture Gallery] for their bicentenary we found a large bit of totally preserved and unexposed Pompeian red …’ ‘We would hear … discussions about the colour of these rooms’, muses Caruso.
But there were other lines of inquiry too. Noting that the project was essentially about furniture design, he notes that deputy curator Helen Dorey’s book about furniture in the house has just been published. ‘That made it more accessible’, without her research the project ‘would have been different or more difficult’.
Above all, explains Caruso, ‘the really big thing was that there would be a tightness between the architecture and the furniture, because that was how Soane and that period furnished things … [with] an incredibly close fit’. ‘Adam noticed the way bookcases in the dining room creased against the chimney pieces,’ adds Knox.
Two new cases flank the fireplace on one wall of the front gallery. One of them scallops in to make space for the window, the other continues undisturbed into the opposite corner. ‘Were you tempted to make them symmetrical?’, Dean asks Caruso, noting that Soane was very exercised by symmetry. ‘We looked at both’, replies Caruso, ‘but within each local situation you try within the language of the furniture to adapt and resolve these things’, and warming to the theme, ‘we’re really interested in symmetry, but also when you come close to look at how it negotiates individual [instances]’. Even Soane, Dean adds, ‘couldn’t resolve the translation of the axis of the [three] windows [in the front room] to the [single-windowed] room behind’.
All these conditions led to a paradox of the type Soane would have recognised. ‘We knew we wanted to make the joinery as fine as we could’ says Caruso, ‘but they are holding pieces of glass weighing a tonne … nobody thought it could be done.’ Fortunately a manufacturer, with ‘a hinge they have developed themselves’, could meet the specification for openable cabinets. That means they can have a very Soanian curve on them, impossible if the glass fronts had to slide open. Through such negotiations a language for the cabinets began to emerge.
Another important factor was the choice of materials, mahogany and Corian, for pieces to complement the cabinets, like an ‘art trolley’ and an escritoire in the ground floor lobby by the shop. ‘It may be a very inventive combination’ suggests Caruso, ‘I’m not sure it’s ever been done before … Corian … is a synthetic material but such a good one … You can use it like joinery. You can mill it like wood but you can also weld it’, although because it moves differently to timber you need to design tolerance. These pieces of furniture, argues Caruso, have some connection to ‘contemporary sculpture’ – he cites Richard Artschwager – ‘which refers to traditional furniture’. The escritoire is a ‘piece I could imagine making at home’.
Not so the cabinets, which are ‘quite specific to their location’. This is partly a project about making exhibition space, and, says Caruso, one reason ‘why we get to do galleries is because we’re interested in what the galleries are used for. We’re interested in powerful architecture … [but] we’re really interested in seeing exhibitions’. Gallery design has a ‘huge effect on experience … it’s much more memorable to see an exhibition in a special place’.
So this project is also about ‘expanding the narrative of the whole house’, and indeed it plays its part in the opening of new spaces – including the Soanes’ private apartments – to visitors, with a route from the familiar entrance to No 13, through the famous spaces in that house at the museum behind, which will rise to the second floor and descend via the new gallery, down again to the shop and out through No 12. The project, says Caruso, is ‘part of the narrative, but only two rooms here [on the first floor] and one downstairs within a larger number of rooms’.
It also represents a small but significant part of contemporary architectural discourse in London, points out Ptolemy Dean. ‘In a London-wide context you have huge buildings being built – the Shard and all the rest of it, [but] you still have architects dealing with furniture.’ The Shard, Caruso muses, ‘is such an oversized, underthought thing’, by contrast the Soane galleries ‘required a lot of thought’. The best work, he continues, demands ‘very, very intense’ commitment, mentioning bank headquarters Caruso St John are designing in Bremen. It’s leading them to an ‘incredible engagement with Hanseatic architecture which we only knew from a distance’, but being on the city’s cathedral square, such intellectual rigour is necessary.
But this sort of historical research is also ‘fun’, insists Dean, ‘history is fun’. It is ‘amazing open territory’, agrees Caruso, ‘we know more about it than ever before, but there is still this modernist craziness [about the refusal] to engage with it … we’ve never explicitly used a [Classical] order, but we will. At [the café in the grounds of] Chiswick House we tried and couldn’t do it’.‘What holds you back?’, asks Dean. ‘Nothing’, Caruso answers, ‘I’m quite interested in things that are on the wrong side of “tasteful”, but to do it [ie, use an order at Chiswick] would have become pastiche in a bad way. Materially, chromatically it is incredibly resonant … the piers are loadbearing; they are actually holding up the roof and it would have been cheaper not to do that, but it wasn’t the right situation.’
If, for Caruso, each project demands an excavation of its material, functional, physical and intellectual context that will uncover its own logic, he is particularly satisfied when that logic is provocative. ‘Soane’s own house is pretty provocative’, says Dean, ‘can you out-provoke Soane?’ There is provocation, and then there is provocation. ‘Some people won’t even realise we’ve done anything,’ replies Caruso, ‘I wouldn’t put it at the same level. You have to get to the right pitch in different projects.’
But, ‘the combination of very big pieces of glass held with glue on steel carriers and [combined with] incredibly fine hardwood joinery’, has ‘something quite radical about it … We have to expand our formal vocabulary to do it’. His work at the Soane may not be as dramatic as an altarpiece he is designing for St Gallen Cathedral in Switzerland – demanding ‘radicalism of a quite different kind’ – but here, as he explains, ‘it doesn’t shout, we don’t whisper, but it’s not a shrinking violet’.