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The Museum of London by Powell and Moya

All Glorious Within – Michael Brawne’s critism of Powell and Moya’s museum for London

Originally published in AR July 1977, this piece was republished online in February 2012

The Museum of London is the most retiring public building in London. Were it not for the words ‘Museum of London’ printed in stubby capitals on its forehead you would not know it was there. Its site is not a site in the ordinary architect’s meaning of the word, but a few oddly shaped pieces of Space Left Over After Planning. Behind, loom the majestic towers and terraces of the Barbican; in what should have been the heart of the site lurks the relict of Ironmongers Hall; above, perched up on pilotis rises the last of the tower office blocks which line ‘Route ll’-and, as though to compound the misery, the site is caught in the mesh of the City’s abortive traffic segregation scheme.

As Michael Brawne points out the placing of pedestrians at a higher level to traffic presents an insoluble architectural problem. A building, if it is to be grasped by the mind of someone approaching it on foot, must rise off a single, unambiguous base. This base helps to give the building an architectural persona: lacking a base it features only as ‘accommodation’.

Approach to the Museum of London from the pedestrian bridge which crosses the roundabout at junction of London Wall and Aldersgate Street. In the foreground, between the bridge and the museum, is the rotunda. In the background are the Barbican towers.

Approach to the Museum of London from the pedestrian bridge which crosses the roundabout at junction of London Wall and Aldersgate Street. In the foreground, between the bridge and the museum, is the rotunda. In the background are the Barbican towers.

In fact the Museum of London has one excellent facade, but by a mocking chance this can only be seen from Aldersgate Street which lies at the lower, vehicular, level and the pedestrian who finds his way down there has the impression that he has stumbled into a horror film. The supreme virtue of Powell Moya & Partners’ brand of architecture is reticence. Not for them the eye-catching architectural gesture. But here their virture has let them down; for reticence practised in a harsh and ugly setting leaves harshness and ugliness in command.

But their virtue pays off in the interior, designed in collaboration with Higgins Ney & Partners; and those intrepid visitors who find their way in are rewarded by the sight of one of the most pleasant new public interiors in the country. This pleasantness is of the essence of the museum. Being more in the nature of a waxworks show than a place of high erudition, it does not provide a sophisticated demonstration of modern exhibition techniques, such as our critic of the display, John Harris, would evidently have wished. The exhibits are mostly four-square and architectural; and the signposting betrays sometimes those touches of amateurness which are in theory so reprehensible but in practice so endearing. Perhaps this is why the museum is so popular.

The ramp

The ramp

Architects account

The site is by the busy roundabout where London Wall and Aldersgate Street meet and is bitten in to on its north side by the Ironmongers Hall, which was built in the early 1920s and had to be retained. On its roof the new museum has to carry the last of the six office towers standing in echelon on either side of London Wall.

The exhibition areas have been designed round a quiet inner garden and the circulation route for the main galleries arranged on two levels as a chronological history of London-runs round this garden as a glazed cloister sloping down from the upper to the lower level of the galleries. From this cloister and from the entrance hall it is possible for the visitor to appreciate the extent of the exhibition areas and to orientate himself within them.

The perimeter of the museum is a solid enclosing wall protecting the galleries from the traffic noise outside; the display on the inside of this wall is interrupted only by an occasional window with a special view-over the city’s Roman and medieval wall, for example, which is allowed to become part of the display itself.

The central area of the traffic roundabout-normally not a promising foreground to any building-has been raised to the walkway level so that it rises up as a rotunda on which converges the radial network of the city’s walkways and becomes, both physically and visually, a focal point-a convenient and obvious junction for those on foot and a forecourt for the museum.

Leading off it, the museum’s open-air concourse, with its canopy formed by one wing of the penthouse offices on the floor above, becomes a wide bridge, which spans from rotunda to museum. From both road and walkway levels the rotunda appears as a feature, which identifies itself with the new museum and stops the office tower overwhelming the museum. Within the rotunda’s wall is the museum’s restaurant and its open-air terraces which look inwards into a round-shaped garden.

The retention of the Ironmongers Hall has led to a solution where the lecture hall and the education wing are on the opposite half of the site to that of the exhibition areas. The entrance hall is in the middle and forms a link between them. The site is thus fully used by the museum buildings wrapping around the Ironmongers Hall, which stood before in the isolation caused by the last war’s bombs.

The reinforced-concrete structure, with its free-standing columns inside and its perimeter walls has been designed to allow reasonably flexible arrangements of the interior so that the layout of the museum, both of the display areas and of the education, administration and services departments, can be changed from time to time. On the outside the concrete walls, which enclose the museum and describe its shape are faced with white ceramic tiles, in contrast with the dark brick of the rotunda and the dark bronze tone of the office tower.

The entrance portico seen from within the rotunda. The restaurant lies below the entrance level. The nearest office tower, though not part of the Museum of London, rises above part of the museum site and was included in the architects' commission.

The entrance portico seen from within the rotunda. The restaurant lies below the entrance level. The nearest office tower, though not part of the Museum of London, rises above part of the museum site and was included in the architects’ commission.

Criticism by Michael Brawne

There has been nothing in this country like the great museum building boom, which occurred in the USA in the last two decades. An entire new major museum in this country is therefore not only an architectural event of considerable importance, but also a tremendous challenge in the whole field of museum design both as regards the appropriateness of the enclosure and of the presentation of material. And because there are so few other examples in Britain which can act as a model, the challenge becomes also more difficult, and more interesting.

The new building for the Museum of London on the edge of the Barbican site and within sight of the St Paul’s precinct-clearly had to face such specific museum problems. It had equally, however, because of its position, to meet the highly intractable and as yet unsolved problems of a building linked at an upper level to a system of raised walkways.

There are again no obviously satisfactory moders, which can act as points of departure. Certainly the South Bank with the Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery and now the National Theatre does not provide any ready made clues and in any case starts off with a tremendous advantage since pedestrians are already at an upper level as they come across Waterloo Bridge or Hungerford Bridge or out of the concourse of Waterloo Station. Nor does the Barbican have the Thames as its boundary.

The difficulties of the Museum of London site are, moreover, further compounded by having a large roundabout leading into one of the newly created traffic routes of the City at its southern edge and an immovable twentieth-century building, Ironmongers’ Hall, hard against its northern boundary. But it is not only such specific site conditions which cause difficulties but rather more the general problem of approaching a building divorced from the ground and also, or very good reasons, presenting blank surfaces to the spaces which link it to the urban mesh that inevitably continues beyond its boundaries. Somehow the architectural act of recognising that the surroundings are alien, at the same time alienates the building itself from its setting.

Thus, however imposing the forecourt of the British Museum or the Louvre may be, or the steps up to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, we always know where we are even though a great many other meanings are being communicated; the spaces speak their function clearly and signal it across some distance. The Museum of London proclaims its name on its white tile cladding in large letters as one emerges out of St Paul’s precinct or the Underground station but the way to those letters is far from clear. This is not necessarily the fault of those who designed that particular building; it is inherent in the situation presented by the town planners and especially during the undoubtedly prolonged period when the upper level system is incomplete.

Frontage to Aldersgate Street

Frontage to Aldersgate Street

Unless it is to cover the whole town, somewhere, sometime it must make a transition to ground level. Surely that transition should be gradual, almost imperceptible and in line with the natural movement and not a winding dog-leg staircase wrapped around a concrete fin, as in the case of the access point from the pavement at the edge of the roundabout to the upper level and presumably designed by the City of London architect’s department as one of the most important routes to the museum. The architects of the Baroque knew how to handle vertical transition with virtuosity and clarity and it is hard to believe that we have totally lost that skill.

Once the upper walkway is reached one is, in some sense, spatially in a world of medieval alleyways: paths that twist and turn apparently randomly around buildings. Any approach is therefore likely to be one of surprise rather than expectation built up.

In the case of the Museum of London that sequence has three stages. The first is through a defined opening in a wall and under a lintel into a circular space with a curious ramped garden (seemingly leading to a kind of dragon’s cave), which relates to a south-facing restaurant. The geometry of this rotunda is given by the layout of the roundabout; it is an attempt to make the museum reach out to the surrounding area. The second is a kind of upper level square except that it has a glazed roof and is surrounded overhead by a narrow band of offices; it is as if a piece of nearby Smithfield Market had been reconstructed in front of the museum. Like the market it demands objects within it and there must surely be some large and suitably vandalproof exhibits which could be placed there and act as an outpost of the museum. The third stage is already indoors in a brief transitional zone that leads to a publication counter and the exhibition spaces immediately beyond it.

“Somehow the architectural act of recognising that the surroundings are alien, at the same time alienates the building itself from its setting.”

The first view inside is downward on the brightly lit red and gold Lord Mayor’s coach, which effectively epitomises the continuity of a tradition into the present. It is the exhibit around which the spiral layout of the museum turns-we see it three times-and which is the key to one’s position within the chronological sequence of the route. There is also a glimpse of red and black halters and harnesses hanging on a concrete wall within a semicircular recess but of little else; the remainder of the museum only unfolds gradually as one continues beyond the publications desk.

The beginning of that onward journey also marks the dividing line between two design responsibilities: Powell Moya & Partners were responsible for the museum building, for the office block slab above it and for the exhibition layout of the Lord Mayor’s coach and its associated equipment as well as the final room in the museum sequence which houses various objects connected with the Royal Family beautifully shown but far too easily bypassed; the remaining exhibition areas were designed by Higgins, Ney & Partners. The division is between the fixed and the changeable; it produces a condition right at the start which one knows will happen eventually, namely that the building will remain relatively unchanged long after the exhibition layout has been drastically amended. Whether there is any virtue in facing historical inevitability even before it happens, is however another matter. The spiral route of the museum takes the visitor through two floors.

Late Tudor section

Late Tudor section

The transition from the upper to the lower floor is made by way of a long ramp with an arched roof and with a glazed wall that gives a view of a planted courtyard. There are no exhibits and it is a highly welcome incident about halfway through the journey. It might be even more so if the surface of the courtyard were a calm green rather than a series of nervously jagged planes. The ramp is also a place where the architectural voice is suddenly somewhat raised; elsewhere internally it whispers with extreme modesty. Eventually from the final section on ceremonial London a staircase and lift lead directly back to the entrance hall. The modified spiral movement is a kind of Guggenheim in reverse and is also akin to Rietveld’s van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The circulation is simple and clear (except for one instance half-way over the Lord Mayor’s coach) and fully recognises the essential characteristic of museum viewing: that it is a linear sequence, which demands continuity. Within this architectural route, 10 sections have been created, each dealing with a particular period of history and each designed slightly differently, although an ingenious standard showcase recurs in a number of sections. It is part of a system of display in which there is a permanent plinth carrying services, which is then straddled by a movable cabinet. Although this display is part of the changeable scene—the furniture rather than the structure of the museum-it has all a highly permanent and deeply embedded look.

That is perhaps an intellectual problem, a problem of appropriateness of action on the basis of a hypothesis, which has almost moral overtones. What however is clearly a visual problem of immediate impact is the method of presentation. It is a great pity therefore in terms of the visual sense of the display that the material of the early sections is small in size and overwhelmed by the written word.

East front of museum with remains of the Roman wall. The shaded window, which gives a view of the wall from the museum.

East front of museum with remains of the Roman wall. The shaded window, which gives a view of the wall from the museum.

The Italian museum designs of the immediate post-war period emphasised the object at the expense of explanation or content. Clearly a reaction has set in. There are times, however, in the early sections of the Museum of London where there seems almost to have been a return to the Victorian notion of the museum as a series of illustrated labels. A much more balanced presentation occurs in the later sections and especially on the lower floor where parts of London-a dour schoolroom, shops, pub, prison, the resplendent 1928 lift from Selfridges-have been installed as part of the display and effectively evoke something of the past.

Context is here given not so much by verbal description as by actual visual material; the communication has thus the characteristics, which seem most appropriate to a museum rather than using those of the illustrated book. One suspects, of course, that many of the decisions bearing on the ratio of words to objects came initially from the curatorial staff rather than the architects of the display.

As one walks round there is a continuous sense of a very considerable professional competence at work, which has managed to weld an enormous array of diverse objects into a coherent and manageable story. The occasional label that is too low or in too small a type or inadequately lit is part of the inevitable teething troubles of any such mammoth task, especially when it is done as speedily as was the case here.

There can only be admiration for the successful completion of a huge undertaking and for the way in which the effort it inevitably required does not obtrude. Both Londoners and visitors have taken to it in great numbers. What one misses, however, on reflection, is that unexpected smile of delight and illumination, that ‘ah ha’ revelation of an object or part of the past which makes the experience memorable; a revelation in which display can play a significant role. That there is this absence may to some extent be due to the density of information which is continually being communicated and perhaps partly to the totally non-hierarchical way in which incident follows incident but, one suspects, also partly to an attitude which may have influenced a great many decisions: the belief in the museum as an information machine. Only at few points does one feel that objects are being shown to be enjoyed, and that seems an opportunity sadly lost.

Twentieth Century Architects

The C20 Society, with English Heritage and RIBA Publications, has published a monograph on the work of Powell and Moya written by Kenneth Powell (April 2009).

The C20 Society campaigns for the preservation of post 1914 buildings, find out more and become a member on the C20 website.

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