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Competition: Somerset House auditorium, London

Somerset House has announced a major architectural contest for a £50 million auditorium at the Grade I-listed building in central London (Deadline: 11 September)

The two-stage competition – organised by Colander on behalf of the Somerset House Trust – will select an architect to deliver a new sunken 700-capacity venue between the New Wing and West Wing of the William Chambers-designed 18th-century building.

The project, planned to complete in 2024, will replace an outdated 1960s conference centre with a new flexible and ‘dynamic forum’ larger than any other events space within the Neoclassical former government complex and will also include a new courtyard-level public space. Purcell has already completed a feasibility study for the scheme.

Main courtyard at Somerset House in central London

Main courtyard at Somerset House in central London

Source: Image by Emperorzurg123

Main courtyard at Somerset House in central London

The competition brief says: ‘This project marks a pivotal moment in the remarkable change that has taken place over the last twenty years, transforming Somerset House from a series of government offices into a pioneering working arts centre and a groundbreaking cultural eco-system.

‘The new venue will be a place where up to 700 people can see, hear and experience work by all kinds of artists right in the heart of London, with many thousands more enjoying it through live streaming, recording and online access. On top of the new venue there is a fantastic opportunity to create a new public space and bring to life a key part of the site’s history and heritage.’

The competition focuses on an underused service yard located behind the Civil Service Rifles Memorial

The competition focuses on an underused service yard located behind the Civil Service Rifles Memorial

Source: Image by Harry Mitchell

The competition focuses on an underused service yard located behind the Civil Service Rifles Memorial

Somerset House was designed in 1776 to replace an earlier riverside palace owned by the Duke of Somerset. The enormous building hosted various government departments and learned societies before being transformed in phases into a cultural centre.

Dixon Jones drew up a masterplan for the site in 1998 and transformed its quadrangle, which had been used as car park, into a water feature and events area. The practice also created a River Terrace Café while Donald Insall Associates completed a major overhaul of the south building.

The latest project will transform the area between the New Wing and West Wing which is known as West Street and currently features a conference centre and service yard. 

Up to seven shortlisted teams will each receive £2,000 and be invited to attend interviews to explain their design approach. Applications will be evaluated 70 per cent on quality and 30 per cent on deliverability. A winning team is expected to be announced by the end of the year.

How to apply

Deadline

The deadline for applications is midday, 11 September

Contact details

Tel: 020 8771 6445
Email: competitions@colander.co.uk

Visit the competition website for more information

Q&A Asmo Jaaksi

The partner at JKMM Architects discusses lessons learned as chief architect on the practice’s Amos Rex museum scheme

Asmo Jaaksi

Asmo Jaaksi

Source: Image by Hannu Rytky

Asmo Jaaksi

How did your project create a new submerged venue and street level public space for Helsinki’s Amos Rex Museum?

The challenge for the design of Amos Rex was to create a public underground building which would be sufficiently impressive, in visual terms, in the urban landscape. We also wanted to create a novel urban space that would be inviting and inspire spontaneous events and encounters. The solution was a new building project which refuses to sink all the way out of sight, but rather ‘bubbles’ partly above ground. The cupolas and skylight windows of the exhibition rooms form a new look and identity for the plaza, providing a platform for experiencing the urban environment in new ways. The new museum emerges in a powerful and distinctive way, yet gently, without suffocating the open plaza. It is a place for diverse manifestations of urban culture, for events and outdoor exhibitions. The cupolas can be used as viewing stands, stages, and places for free lounging. They structure the plaza and delineate varying scales for different functions.

Amos Rex Museum by JKMM Architects

Amos Rex Museum by JKMM Architects

Source: Image by Hannu Rytky

Amos Rex Museum by JKMM Architects

Which architectural, material, visual and other methods did you harness in your design?

Underground spaces are not typically experienced as pleasant. In the case of Amos Rex, this problem has been alleviated by architectural means. The connection to the street level has been designed to be as open and clear as possible. The entrance hall emphasises light, having an unburdened atmosphere. It is important that visitors in underground spaces feel that they remain connected to the surrounding city. In Amos Rex, the museum-goer’s experience is an amalgamation of the shapes of the exhibition rooms and the city plaza above, incorporating concave ceiling vaults and convex humps, which creates a sense of the structure of the whole. The large skylight windows act as eyes, through which perspectives can be acquired upwards and out into the surroundings.

Amos Rex Museum by JKMM Architects

Amos Rex Museum by JKMM Architects

Source: Image by Mika Huisman

Amos Rex Museum by JKMM Architects

Some of the museum functions were placed into the protected Lasipalatsi (glass palace) building, where all modifications and renovations were executed with respect for the historical values of this old structure. The dialogue between new and old architecture is always an interesting starting point for design.

What advice would you have to contest participants on creating a new auditorium for Somerset House?

The urban cultural context is vital. The design task should not be thought of as including only a new building constructed for some specific and limited purpose, but as part of broader urban functionality. Complementary construction can be a way to create something completely new and unpredictable.

The visitor experience is always essential, and one should strive to empathise with it. The transition into an underground space should always be inviting and pleasant.

Amos Rex Museum by JKMM Architects

Amos Rex Museum by JKMM Architects

Source: Image by Tuomas Uusheimo

Amos Rex Museum by JKMM Architects

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