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1972 December - Cars Cathedral

How not to do it? National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, Hampshire by Leonard Manasseh and Partners

The Neo-Classical marathon is over and the removal men are once more staggering under their monstrous loads as the rooms are dismantled. To have wheedled so much loot from so many different sources, to have got it all to London and sent it all back again, to have catalogued 1912 exhibits and persuaded 58 members of six committees from 14 countries to refrain from actually cutting each other’s throats is something of an achievement. As a result people have been able to see an enormous number of strange, wonderful or beautiful objects which they wouldn’t otherwise have seen.


So they should be grateful. But are they? For in some ways the exhibition has been the great lost opportunity of the year. An exhibition of this kind has two main functions. It enables scholars to see and compare exhibits normally scattered all over the world, and leaves them the legacy of a catalogue which is a piece of scholarship and a valuable work of reference in itself. But it is also meant both to entertain and inform the non-specialist, who comes to it in the hope of being enlightened, with only a very vague idea of what Neo-Classicism is about.

The agreeable subsidiary exhibition of English Neo-Classical furniture at Osterley was obviously designed first and foremost at Burlington House gave the impression of having been planned with fiendish skill to confuse them. They were first of all faced with the alternative of a catalogue which told them too much and a hand-list which told them too little. The complete lack of any captioning made it almost impossible to do without the catalogue.

This formidable object may have been an excellent investment, full of meat for a long winter evening, and a speaking symbol of Neo-Classical fascination with the gigantic: but as a usable guide to the exhibition it was grotesque. Moreover as there was no sequence in the numbering of exhibits, to extract information about each successive item involved grappling with it in a separate act of physical warfare.

But the struggle to find out about Neo-Classicism didn’t only involve fighting against the catalogue, it also involved fighting against the arrangement of the rooms. After a hopeful start this was depressingly unimaginative. It was almost impossible for anyone not pre-equipped to work out how NeoClassicism originated, how it developed, what it reacted against or what ideals and ideas it pursued. Instead one room was filled with landscapes, another with portraits, two with gods and goddesses, one with stage designs, two with sculpture; architecture, for those with any strength left after 16 rooms, was tucked away in three rooms upstairs.


In each of these rooms the baffled visitor could find exhibits rubbing shoulders with each other (Blake with David, Reynolds with Goya) which appeared to have stylistically nothing whatever in common. In two rooms only classification by type was briefly and confusingly abandoned for classification by date. One suspects that most visitors, if button-holed at the end and asked ‘What is Neo-Classicism?’ would have been able to do little except mutter something about temples, ruins, gods, and togas.

But this limited view was just what the exhibition was designed to dispel; the title ‘The Age of NeoClassicism’ was deliberately chosen to underline that it wasn’t just about style but also about what lay behind the style. The connections were all nicely explained in the 11 introductory essays to the catalogue, for those who had time to read them; with occasional exception the display technique of the exhibition didn’t illuminate them at all. But the wretched public who payout their 40p have the right to feel that they’re not just outsiders who are being allowed to listen in to an incomprehensible dialogue between art historians.


Over the last 10 years the techniques of display and communication have developed enormously. The tools and the expertise are available. Exhibitions can be in themselves creative. An age may be harder to put on show than an individual; but one remembers how Russia was displayed in ‘Art and Revolution’ at the Hayward Gallery in 1971: the slogans, the banners, the revolutionary music, the vivid feeling of a time and place when people thought they were going to change the world. They thought the same in Neo-Classical times; but no room at Burlington House gave any sensation of this, least of all the one entitled ‘Revolution and Empire’, a giant morgue filled with that appalling arthistorical chill: Silence, great masterpieces here! And yet the same designer worked on both exhibitions.

What went wrong? Were 58 art historians too much for him? It is true that ‘Art in Revolution’ was a much more manageable affair. But it would have been easy to arrange a central route of manageable size at Burlington House, displayed with wit and style to be self-explanatory of what NeoClassicism was about, with architecture, painting, sculpture and furniture combined to underline and illustrate particular points instead of isolated in separate little compartments.

Topics such as the reaction against the rococo, the new morality, the emphasis on education and reform, the discovery of Greece, the fascination with the primitive and the gigantic, could have been intelligibly and some of them sensationally displayed. An opportunity has been lost, which, for Neo-Classicism,’ is not going to occur again in our time. But the moral remains: art historians, like architects, must learn to communicate with the public, for both sides will benefit from the dialogue.

Architects Leonard Manasseh & Partners.
Partners-in-charge Ian Baker and Leonard Manasseh.
Job architect Christopher Hulls.


Concept Brian F. Hubbard.
Planning Elizabeth Chesterton.
Structural Felix J. Samuely & Partners.
Display Sir Hugh Casson.
Landscape J. St Bodfan Gruffydd.
Quantity surveyors: Venning Hope & Partners.
Graphics James Sutton.
Display Dennis Brennan and Leonard Manasseh & Partners.
Lighting Concord Lighting International
Client Montagu Ventures Ltd and the Trustees of the National Motor Museum.
Contractor C. P. Unwin & Sons Ltd.
Site agent D. K. Grant.



The area of the complex is 110 acres (approximately 46 hectares) surrounded by woodland, parkland and farms.


The client’s building requirements arose out of a 20-year strategy plan for the whole of the Beaulieu Estate as a conservation area. This plan was completed in the autumn of 1966, before any building work started, and had been accepted in outline by the county. It was adopted by them as part of the county plan.

The buildings required were a motor museum, information centre, an administration building and a library.

All these buildings were implementations of those described in the study and report for which outline permission had been given, and replaced existing facilities.

Building operations started on 1 December 1970 and, apart from the restaurant which, having first been omitted from the contract, was reinstated when the work was already halfway through, all the complex buildings were substantially complete when they were opened on 4 July 1972 by HRH the Duke of Kent. The restaurant/conference building was completed on 9 August 1972.

Town-planning and other statutory requirements A factor governing the circulation of the entire complex was Elizabeth Chesterton’s proposal for a new by-pass (opened on 24 March 1972). This by-pass relieves Beaulieu Village of a great deal of traffic.

The by-pass routes the majority of museum bound traffic, which comes from the Bournemouth/Lymington area, northwards up the Lyndhurst Road (B3056) off which the complex is entered from the north (instead offrom the south as formerly) across a new bridge over the Beaulieu River leading straight into the new car parks in the woods north of the complex. The main planning conditions were:

1 After the completion of the northern entry, the southern entry should be closed to the public and only used for access to the church and by residents enjoying rights of way over Lord Montagu’s land.

2 After essential clearing of trees in the woodland to allow car parking, as many trees as possible should be preserved, particularly around the perimeter.

3 Beaulieu stone was talked about as a building material, but fortunately not made a condition of planning permission and, after inspection of a sample panel, Forticrete blocks were accepted as the main walling material. A unifying element in all four buildings was the restriction of materials to steel, blockwork and glazing. Fairly large areas of glazing were used for functional reasons and also for ‘atmosphere’ because, in the view of the architects, the use of glass in this context continued an excellent English tradition of glass buildings in parkland like the great 19th-century glasshouses, not least the Crystal Palace, originally in Hyde Park, and Decimus Burton’s marvellous structures at Kew.

The key to the detailed planning of the complex was the making of an opening in a large garden wall that divided the kitchen gardens near Palace House from the parkland to the north. This opening (known as the ‘Hole in the Wall’) enabled a path from Palace House to continue northwards to the Information Centre through which everyone now enters the complex. This connecting spine having been established, the two main structures-the museum and the restaurant/conference building-fell naturally into place on either side of this main circulation route.



Several ideas were thought about for the planning of the museum, including a series of small pavilions. Attractive as this idea was, it was felt that it might be uneconomic in services and, more important, would crystallise once and for all the motor car display. The square plan adopted was felt to be the most economic in terms of perimeter wall and services and also the plan form that would allow the client maximum flexibility of display in the future.

The museum is parallel to the main circulation route and is entered at 45 deg at a corner. On the assumption that crowds of people flow like water, a 45 deg turn into the entrance was felt to be preferable to a right-angle turn off the main path. Also, in general, the contours of the land ran panillel to the diagonal-of the square, falling’ away to the river.

This allowed entry at ground level and a change from one storey to a two-storey height along the diagonal, which is at right-angles to the line of entry. This two-storey height permits a motor cycle gallery with observation windows looking into a maintenance garage at ground level below.

The plan form and the contours also allow a ‘basement’ for storage and other purposes under entry level-ie under half the building. A car lift serves all three levels.

It was always a requirement for the museum that it should have a monorail running through it. This largely dictated the roof structure described later, and its shape.

It would be uneconomic to raise the whole roof to accommodate the monorail, so it was decided that the monorail should run through a double pitched glazed roof along the diagonal of the building, with the rail just below the level of the main roof. An excellent view of the whole museum is obtained from this level. The monorail is supported on its own columns.

A similar glazed roof covers the other diagonal, and the two form a giant cruciform light to the museum. This is the main source of daylight-lighting the chief circulation routes on the diagonals, yet keeping the majority of the exhibits away from direct sunlight which has a deteriorating effect on paint and bodywork.

The public enters the museum by first passing through an enclosed space called ‘The Alcan Hall of Fame’. This is a sort of Valhalla for the great names of the industry-Daimler, Benz, Royce,Ford, Morris etc-and also for the heroes of motor racing’. The hall is clad in a special material produced by Alcan, who are trustees of the museum and one of the largest sponsors.
Manufacturers appear in sequence, back-projected on to a screen on one side of the hall, and the racing drivers similarly projected on the other.

The public then enters the museum, which is divided roughly into four triangular sections-vintage cars, veteran cars, racing and sports cars, and commercial vehicles. In the centre, at the change of level, are a series of display booths, each of which tells the story of some aspect of the industry. These have been designed by the sponsoring firms themselves and given a certain uniformity by aluminium lettering on the fascias.

This simple structure works rather like a rail way concourse. The complex is entered through it from the car parks and here people obtain information and buy tickets and/or souvenirs. It contains a changing display of attractions available at Beaulieu, Buckler’s Hard, the river and the estate as a whole. The public enters and leaves through this building, which is on the axis of the main circulation spine. This building is connected to the John Montagu building.

Contains the administration offices and the BP Library of Motoring. It is named in memory of Lord Montagu’s father. The administration building also houses the education department which creates its own displays and runs seminars and lectures, catering particularly for organised parties of school children.

The library contains a comprehensive collection of motoring literature, pamphlets, handbooks of old cars, historic posters etc, and includes a photographic library and darkroom facilities. There is a reading room and a hall on the ground -floor for small exhibitions, lectures etc.

Another floor is about to be added to the administration building: this was allowed for in the original plan.

A restaurant/conference hall, named after the first Lord Brabazon of Tara who opened the old museum building’s in 1956 and 1958-is a cruciform building somewhat like the plan of a Greek Orthodox Church. This was to satisfy a brief in which space was required for three different kinds of catering, and either used as one space or separated by movable screens but at the same time accessible separately or as a whole from the kitchens. A large entrance foyer houses souvenir shops and provides access, separately if need be, to the three catering spaces.

The fall of the ground is utilised to provide public lavatories below the entrance foyer. The building is entered by stairs on the axis of the museum entrance and by a parallel flight of stairs from the lavatories below. It is capable of being blacked out by blinds and curtains and provision is made for a cinema screen to drop from the ceiling, suitably placed for small or large conferences. The maximum capacity is about 400. With its extensive wall and clerestorey glazing, it has the atmosphere of a winter garden.


Heating and hot water to all buildings supplied from oil-fired boilers in John Montagu building, as follows:
John Montagu building, information centre: convectors and radiators.
The Brabazon: heater batteries in fresh air input to public areas. Radiators in ancillary spaces.
Museum: fan convectors in main areas, unit heaters in workshop and basement.

John Montagu building, information centre: natural ventilation generally.
The Brabazon: fresh air input to public areas, extracted through kitchen ventilation system.
Museum: fresh air input fans concealed in perimeter display stands.

Museum: two 60-ton air handling water cooled units, re-circulating, in centre of museum.

Electricity Board substation located under museum entrance serves all buildings.
Normal electrical installation with extensive use of lighting track for flexibility of display lighting.
Post Office PABX for internal telephones.
Smoke detection fire alarm system in offices and library, natural system generally.
Public address system in museum, restaurant and test arena.



The building is 58’5 m square, with a roof structure supported by two diagonal steel spine girders which extend at the corners to form entrance canopies. At the main entrance the canopy is supported: elsewhere they form overhanging cantilevers.
Each spine girder is formed by two inclined tubular latticed girders, and is 5-2 m high by 7-3 m wide at the base.
All-welded latticed girders at 3-5 m centres span between the spine girders.
Internal stanchions are 168-3 mm od case-hardened steel (6’625in) at 9-8 m and 14-7 m centres. Roof steelwork is also partly in case-hardened steel, in sizes ranging from 48-3 mm to 219,1 mm od (1-906in to 8-625in).


Walls: Forticrete blocks fair face externally and internally.
Steelwork: exposed and painted.
Timber curtain walling on 4ft module : timber members painted with Solignun1.
Glazed roof: aluminium patent glazing on steel framework.
Flat roof areas: three layers of felt with chippings.
Windows: fixed glazing’ with high-level glass louvres.
Floors: Staffordshire brown brindle paviors.
Ceilings: timber boarded, varnished.

Walls: Forticrete blockwork externally and concrete blocks internally plastered.
Flat roof areas: three layers of felt with chippings.
Partitions: plastered blockwork and
demountable partitions designed by the architect of in Glinex fiaxboard faced both sides with asbestos ‘0’ board painted. Timber supports, cover pieces and skirtings varnished.
Windows: aluminium vertical sliding sashes.
Floors: carpet on screed.

Walls: blockwork fair face externally and internally, except for kitchens which are blockwork plastered and/or tile faced, and some storage space which is painted blockwork.
Roofing: aluminium roofing on certain areas ; three-ply felt with chipping’s finish on others.
Steelwork: exposed and painted.
Windows: timber curtain walling with vertical sashes, as in John Montagu building. Armour plate doors to terraces etc. Clerestorey lighting patent glazing.
Floors: vinyl tile on screed. Kitchen areas and lavatories quarry tiles.
Ceilings: public areas, boarding varnished. Kitchen and services areas, plaster painted.

Walls: Forticrete blockwork fair face externally and internally.
Steelwork: exposed and painted orange.
Windows: steel slit windows in chevron walls to give an indirect wash of light on wall surfaces behind exhibits.
Roofing: aluminium roofing. Glazed roof lights and canopies on the diagonals of the building. Aluminium patent glazing on steel framework.
Floors: Staffordshire brown brindle paviors in all public areas except motor cycle gallery, which, with the workshop and stores, is grano.

Walls: specially made textured aluminium sheet, anodised silver-gold, coach bolted to timber studding.
Ceiling: aluminium louvres.
Floor: as for museum.



Criticism by Luke Wright

The visitor to Beaulieu is quickly reminded that he is in the presence of a sort of cultural fluke, something which has happened against the ordinary rules of chance. Everywhere else the places where people go in great quantity-the city centres, the popular resorts, the tourist attractions have been progressively and systematically fouled. They have been fouled, not by the people themselves, but by the magnates who control these places; and they have been fouled not, of course, by intention, but by the very simple means either of employing no architectural advice at all or of employing the kind of architectural advice-alas, so rife these days-which is worse than none.

But Beaulieu is the exception. In an age of unrivalled squalor it is the one showplace in private hands which is painfully climbing back into a state of environmental grace. This is established from the start by the strategic decision to direct the entrance to the whole complex away from the village; and by the parking of cars, not in an asphalted prairie of vast extension, but in a sequence of small parks surfaced with hoggin and both surmounted by and interspersed with trees. Beaulieu is primarily a fairground; and the motor museum, though indeed a museum in the full sense of the word, is a museum-set-in-a-fairground: it owes its site there, not just to the foresight of the present Lord Montagu’s father, but to the fact that the items shown command immense popular appeal.

Had they been incunabula or fossils the museum would have been of a very different sort—and somewhere else. The first claim of Beaulieu on our attention therefore lies in the fact that it is the first application of serious architecture to the problem of the permanent fairground. Ventures of this sort are not static, they are a living thing and therefore grow and change. The site as it is now stands mid-way on the road to regeneration and traces of the earlier, less well-planned part can still be seen.



The key to Leonard Manasseh’s architectural treatment lies in his choice of patent glazing as the dominant material and form on the site. In pure environmental terms this was a natural choice. For many generations, we have been taught to see large areas of glass as a legitimate concomitant of noble parks. Patent glazing was a good choice, too, in relation to the motor museum itself. The allusion is right. The great projecting diagonal transepts of glass are a sort of architectural apotheosis of those glass lean-to roofs attached to converted coach houses, under which the earliest and most expensive cars were lovingly washed…

It is when we come to apply this patent glazing idiom to the fairground idea that we sense a certain inappropriateness: it is a trifle solemn. And the architect’s ideal of ‘buildings in parkland’ seems questionable for so people-ridden a spot. There is the practical side: in so busy a place grassy banks are hard to keep grassy; but there is also the emotional side: a fairground needs to be seen to be busy, with constant glimpses of alternative joys. The English Park setting, by contrast, has about it an air of privilege and cannot easily assimilate items foreign to its tradition. For instance, the sight of the Bournemouth Belle standing casually at the edge of a spinney may charm by surprise but shatters absolutely the ‘buildings in parkland’ image. A better policy might have been to do as the continentals and, using hard surfacings, to rely on trees and shrubs rather than grass to provide the necessary foil; and by this means to establish quite clearly that this is a popular spot.

But considerations of this sort are quickly forgotten once the visitor is inside the motor museum itself. The Alcan Hall of Fame which he first enters must surely fill the most callous soul with feelings of delicious awe: the glittering, spotlit cars, the transitory appearance of the great personages of motoring history-all this is true fairground stuff, handled with real flair and sensibility. Passing on into the main hangar, the tradltions of the fairground rather than those of the museum rightly predominate. The visitor is given his freedom to go exactly where fancy calls and he is treated, not to the ‘well chosen selection’ of the museum curator, but to a simply tremendous spread of vehicles. Packed rather close, they have the air of representing the whole motorised creation awaiting some motorious Last Judgment. There is information enough for those who really want it, but the emphasis throughout is, quite rightly, on pleasure.


The garage setting is correct. The hard brick floor, the concrete parapets with their unlovely galvanised rails, the raw steelwork, the prevailing harshness and darkness-this is, of course, the environment in which the motor car has grown up and which it is now imposing on a moonstruck society. So long as it is related to the motor car, the emphasis on structural economy and on hard finishes (as expressed by the use of standard structural sections) is fully justified.

For is it not true to say that the motor car itself and the money we spend on its fuel and its roads is one prime reason why we have so little, proportionately, to spend on our buildings. But Leonard Manasseh’s use of kit-of-parts structural material for buildings which are primarily for human occupation-such as the information building and the restaurant is less apt.

The good old British raj displayed so freely and so candidly may make good structural and economic sense and may be accounted an engaging expression of architect humility; but nothing can quite efface the fact that it was created by the visually blind and that the dust it collects and the awkward fixings it gives rise to produce a setting which conveys a tinge of deprivation.

Fortunately, devotees of the motor car are not particularly sensitive to this class -of effect; and if we may regret the sharper, more crystalline appearance which might have been produced at twice the cost, we cannot fail to notice the huge advance this complex makes in the meagre annals of British tourism. May the controllers of other honeypots take envious note.

Twentieth Century Architects

The C20 Society, with English Heritage and RIBA Publications, has published a monograph on the work of Leonard Manasseh and Partners by Timothy Brittain-Catlin (November 2010).

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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