Now I have to admit that I love museums and galleries and all such stuff of culcha. However, I also love the venerable buildings that house some of our major museums and galleries, and not only because many of these institutions have very decent caffs with chocolate cake and free loos (I can draw up a list of these in London and Edinburgh, for anyone interested).
I am also not so blinkered as to think that these should never be extended in order to house more exhibits and hold enthralling exhibitions.
However, we would not, surely, unless we were either barking mad, or total Philistines, wish to cause damage to important listed buildings and add, as someone once said in such a context, a carbuncle on the face of a dear friend? We wouldn't, unless certain contemporary artists, surely deface works of art or museum artifacts, so why do it to historic buildings housing such things? Careful conservation of historic buildings is equally as important as the conservation of contents.
Now I don't always agree with HRH (although I frequently do), and the press storm in the Spode last week regarding its now ex-royal Patron's hissy fit with the Society of Ancient Buildings, the philosophy of 'honest repair' and adding to buildings in a manner appropriate to our time was all a tad OTT (SPAB's position deeply misunderstood by the press and many who commented on the news also). However, in the case of the British Museum extension, I did think that it was all too much. The proposed extension was, IMHO, a definite piece of civic bad manners.
I'm not at all a fan of glass buildings either, maybe a bit of personal prejudice, but I do feel many parts of London have been disfigured by these in recent times. The architect's vision does get very grimy, and facades have on permanent display window cleaning gantries. Please can we return to building in something rather more substantial, and sympathetic to the surroundings, and not just with a token piece of cladding?
I wasn't alone in thinking the British Museum extension a potential pimple of monster proportions; SAVE Britain's Heritage, the Georgian Group, Camden Civic Society and the Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee didn't think it a wizard wheeze either. Predictably, CABE supported the plans, and puzzlingly and worryingly so did the Victorian Society and English Heritage.
Now I have no doubt Bath Heritage Watchdog, which campaigned with such vigour not to have the Holburne Museum spoilt by the Eric Parry extension (a sort of dismal ceramic thingy on the back of this wonderful classical building) will also entirely agree that extensions to successful museums are A Good Thing, but not when they are bad and a blot on the surroundings. Why, then, is English Heritage so supportive of this extension, as it was of the Bath one (and also the now, thankfully, abandoned Dyson Academy)?
The Garden History Society objection to the Holburne at the time stated:The Garden History Society in its role as Statutory Consultee advises Bath & North East Somerset Council that ... the Society remains firmly of the view that the proposed extension (as revised) would by reason of its design, height scale and use of materials have a significantly adverse and detrimental impact on the Grade II registered Sydney Gardens, the Grade I listed Holburne Museum and the settings of various listed structures within Sydney Gardens and the surrounding designed urban environment. The development would similarly have a significantly adverse and detrimental impact on the appearance, character and historic interest of the Bath Conservation Area, and on the Bath World Heritage Site
The proposed development conflicts with national planning policy guidance contained in PPG15 and PPS1; it also conflicts with the local plan policies contained in the Bath Local Plan (1997) and the Bath & North East Somerset Local Plan (especially Policies BH2 and BH9)
For these reasons The Garden History Society formally advises Bath & North East Somerset Council that it would be inappropriate to grant permission for this development.
It was, sadly passed, possibly not really connected with architectural merit (it has none) but because of external pressures, including a silly article in the Observer. Councillors don't like being seen to be backward. They have their collective arms twisted by the pressure brought by promised external funding. Rejection will be seen as standing in the way of progress, and blocking the future of the institution, which will naturally not be able to carry on unless the latest shiny lump is added.
I am sure a different architect could have designed something far more in keeping with the existing building, in a style suited to the 21st century which also respected the past.
(Along with the new extension will come a new caff; the old one, in a wooden building in the grounds, with cats, good tea and great cakes, alas will be no more. I won't be visiting the Holburne again; it was one of the pleasures of a visit to the place.)
For more on the Holburne, which is now, unfortunately, steaming ahead, read:
Last week the good people from Camden Civic Society and Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee were kind enough to send me this Press Release, which explains that they are not being NIMBYs, but have serious objections to the British Museum proposals which really do need to be given a wider audience and some careful thought on the part of the DCMS and English Heritage.
British Museum proposed North West Development: local groups call on English Heritage to withdraw Letter of Advice.
In a letter sent to the Chief Executive of English Heritage, the Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee and the Camden Civic Society have jointly asked English Heritage to withdraw their formal letter of Advice on the subject of the British Museum’s proposed North West development. The letter of Advice, sent 19 June 2009, is addressed to the London Borough of Camden, the relevant planning authority. The architects are Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners and the application is registered at Camden as 2009/1762/L and 2009/1760/P.
The application is due to come before Camden’s Development Control Committee on 23rd July. The Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee and the Camden Civic Society have both already registered very strong objections to the proposed development with Camden.
The two local organisations believe that the Advice contained in English Heritage’s letter is so unbalanced and superficial that it does not carry full legal weight. More precisely, they consider that English Heritage has not abided by its statutory obligation “to secure the preservation of ancient monuments and historic buildings situated in England” (section 32 of the National Heritage Act 1983).
An earlier Director of the British Museum, Dr.Robert Anderson, wrote in c.1997: "The British Museum’s majestic building is known throughout the world, and has become an international symbol of a museum. As the finest example of nineteenth century Greek Revival architecture in the country, it is itself an important part of the national heritage" (from the pamphlet The British Museum 2003: Celebrating 250 Years, p.10), The Bloomsbury CAAC and the Camden Civic Society fully agree with this assessment of the significance of the Museum’s buildings.
But English Heritage’s Advice gives no hint that historic architecture of such importance is being considered. Instead, English Heritage praises the new extension: “It is our view that the proposed new build element of the scheme has the potential to provide a first class architectural response to the surrounding Museum context and to the Bloomsbury Conservation Area.”
The Bloomsbury CAAC and the Camden Civic Society have also sent English Heritage a detailed document refuting English Heritage’s Advice point by point. At the heart of their criticism is the failure of the Advice to weigh the Museum’s stated needs against the requirement to preserve the historic buildings.
The letter of the Bloomsbury CAAC and Camden Civic Society to English Heritage concludes by stating that, if English Heritage is not able to act independently and responsibly, the Bloomsbury CAAC and the Camden Civic Society will actively petition the Government to return the Policy and Advice responsibilities of English Heritage to direct Ministerial control.
Other objectors to the British Museum application include the Georgian Group, Save Britain’s Heritage and the Ancient Monuments Society
The letter from the Bloomsbury CAAC and Camden Civic Society to English Heritage suggests three factors which may have affected English Heritage’s Advice:
a) A possible failure to fully appreciate the effect of the designs from the drawings and other documents supplied. English Heritage’s officers may not have understood fully how damaging the proposed scheme will be to the existing buildings.
b) A desire to promote modern architecture. We have no evidence that it has ever been English Heritage’s duty to promote modern schemes of this kind, but English Heritage in recent years appears increasingly to have been doing so.
c) Possible outside influence. The Bloomsbury CAAC and the Camden Civic Society wonder whether it is possible that English Heritage might have been subject to undue outside influence. They note that the tone of the public statements made by English Heritage on the British Museum scheme has varied considerably over the last twenty-one months. The formal letter of Advice is the most strongly supportive of the scheme among the statements made by English Heritage to date.
The discussion of the scheme at the last meeting of English Heritage’s London Advisory Committee, on 20 March this year, has been blocked from publication as “potentially exempt from public access under the Freedom of Information Act Section 36: prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs”. The Camden Civic Society has written separately to English Heritage formally to request to see the relevant written record.
The formal objections to the application by the Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee and the Camden Civic Society focus on three aspects of the proposal:
i) the way in which the proposal will block daylight and sunlight from the existing buildings on the North West of the site, at the same time cutting off views of the exteriors of these buildings and obscuring views from inside them. The new extension, which will be as tall as the existing Museum buildings, will in many places be only 2 m away, and only 5 m away from the rear of houses on the east side of Bedford Square. Among the Museum’s interiors, the most badly affected will be Sir Robert Smirke’s Arched Room (1839), an astonishing triple-height library room, perfectly preserved. The scheme will also have a seriously negative effect on the North Stair of J.J.Burnet’s King Edward VII building, one of the grandest stairs in any London interior.
ii) the punching through of three new openings in the base of the magnificent North elevation of Smirke’s Great Court, designed in 1823 and restored as recently as 2000, the restoration work paid for by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. These proposed openings are without any sort of architectural or historical precedent.
iii) the demolition of two brick houses on Montague Place, facsimiles built to the design of James Burton and typical of Georgian Bloomsbury, and their replacement by a flank elevation of one of the “pavilions” of the new extension, in materials alien to the character of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area.
Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee c/o 44 Kings Terrace London NW1OJR
Camden Civic Society, c/o 32 Hillway, N6 6HJ
Yesterday, Building Design was confidently reporting that the plans were recommended for approval; thankfully, this morning's AJ brought the welcome news that councillors had seen sense, and rejected the plans. Of course, there had been stories this week that funding difficulties may have meant this, and other planned carbuncles, would possibly be short of the readies, but a rejection may give those responsible some time to reconsider, and not try to appeal.
English Heritage has surely lost its way; it's no longer protecting historic buildings and the wider historic environment in the way it should, in too many cases, and it's rather obvious that something is amiss.
Its advice should be impartial, and at times it blatantly isn't. It seems to carefully select where it picks its fights, and it is at times bafflingly inconsistent (it is rumoured that it has, thankfully, given advice that the hugely damaging scheme dreamed up for the II* Commonwealth Institute should be rejected, although remember the II* Park Hill, Sheffield, reduced to a skeleton, and the 'squint test'?).
Now we can all hazard guesses as to why it really feels it has to keep its head down and not be seen to be standing in the way of such schemes as the British Museum. The future of English Heritage (and indeed the DCMS) is, it is rumoured, in doubt. Naturally, there are powerful forces at work behind such schemes as the British Museum and the Holburne. Yet it does seem that it has forgotten its primary role in these cases, as said above,
... English Heritage has not abided by its statutory obligation “to secure the preservation of ancient monuments and historic buildings situated in England” (section 32 of the National Heritage Act 1983).
Anyhow, let's hope that all involved now go away, lick wounds, and quietly consider if the millions planned to be spent could not now be spent (assuming the funding can still be raised) on something of which the nation can be proud, and which will be an asset not a blot.
The Architect's Journal report on the rejection is here, alongside pictures and links to other articles:
Shock refusal for Rogers' British Museum extension
24 July, 2009 By Merlin Fulcher
Camden Council has unexpectedly rejected Richard Rogers’ £135 million British Museum extension project
The North Western development of the central London landmark, by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), was turned down by the borough’s planning committee last night (23 July) by five votes to three - but the official reasons for the refusal remain unclear.
Speaking during a lengthy debate about the 17,000m² project facing Montagu Place, Lib Dem councillor Paul Braithwaite said:‘We seem to be piggy-backing in an absolutely huge over-development.’
He added: ‘This is over-development in a most dramatic fashion and I will be voting against it.’
The five pavilion scheme at the rear of the museum had been recommended for approval by planning officers.
However fellow Lib Dem councillor David Abrahams, who also voted against the application, said the scheme ‘encroached too closely on the existing buildings’.
Lighting in the Grade-I listed museum’s Arched Room was the subject of a protracted discussion with members grilling project architect Graham Stirk who attended the meeting.
‘It would have been an easier decision had RSHP come up with a better façade,’ said Lib Dem councillor Russell Eagling, who voted for the proposal which the practice has been working on since winning a high-profile competition in May 2007.
Meanwhile Hugh Cullen of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee said the proposal ‘frankly mutilates the museum’.
Confusingly Ed Watson, assistant director for planning and public protection, noted ‘members wanted to refuse the application but [didn’t] have any reasons’.
A statement from Camden Council and the British Museum is expected later today (24 July).
News of the rejection comes just days after doubts emerged over the proposed government funding for the project.
Building Design also reports today:
Rogers’ British Museum extension refused planning
24 July, 2009
By Will Hurst
Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners £135 million British Museum extension project was dramatically refused planning permission last night.
As BD reported this week, the scheme – which comprises five glass pavilions and an underground section – was expected to be waved through by Camden councillors, having been backed by council planning officers as well as Cabe and English Heritage.
But Camden’s planning committee voted against it by five votes to three, with some members describing it as a massive over-development which would have an adverse impact on neighbouring historic buildings.
The committee also had concerns about lighting in the grade I listed museum, with members questioning project architect Graham Stirk, who attended the meeting.
The practice has been working on the extension since winning a high-profile competition in May 2007, but it had been already facing an up-hill battle caused by severe funding difficulties.
Speaking before last night’s decision, a museum spokeswoman said it was hoped the extension would open in 2012 but confirmed that the museum needed to secure around £60 million to complete the project.
Two thirds of the £22.5 million promised by the DCMS is in doubt after culture minister Barbara Follett said that she could not guarantee funding for arts projects because of the recession.
A statement from Camden Council is expected later today 24 July.
British Museum statement
We thought we had made a compelling case which drew a balance between our responsibility to our great buildings, the historic environment, the museum’s collection and the public benefits that would flow from this scheme.
The case was supported by English Heritage and CABE, and had been recommended for approval by Camden officers.
We regret that the members of Camden Council’s Development Control Committee, by a majority of one, chose not to grant planning permission for the proposed development.
The need for the benefits the scheme would provide has not gone away. The committee have not yet provided their formal reasons for refusal and in the light of this information we shall consider our next steps as a matter of priority
and the opposition, was the subject of an article in the AJ last month:
The Editor thought it 'dull':
and the architectural claptrap used to justify it a spot confused:
There aren’t many other architects of the stature of RSHP which would couch their proposals in such laconic and apparently paradoxical terms. The building, the firm says, is both ‘monumental’ and ‘delicate’; ‘solid’ but transparent enough to allow ‘glimpses’ through; ‘quiet’ but ‘vibrant’. Sounds to me like it couldn’t make up its mind.
What will come out of it is a world-class museum facility, but a rather nondescript piece of architecture, with the most prominent gesture being what looks like a stair tower with a very thin, clip-on facade of stone matching the Robert Smirke original.
What with Foster’s Great Court, perhaps the legacy of British high-tech at the British Museum will be to prove that Rogers and Foster were always better at roofs than they were at walls.
There are, of course, other such extensions and alterations to museums and galleries in the pipeline which are equally as contentious; the poor old Science Museum for example, has this planned:
but for today, there's been a small victory for historic buildings, and one battle won in the never-ending war.
Possibly a trip to Scotland should be on the agenda for some, to look at the Benson and Forsyth museum building. Decent caff and loos, also.
PRESS STATEMENT BY BCAAC
The Bloomsbury Conservation Advisory Committee is extremely relieved that the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners proposal for the extension to the British Museum has been refused planning permission. The decision was reached late last night after an exhaustive two and a half hour debate during which our concerns were aired. Camden’s Planning Committee members showed a very thorough understanding of the great damage which would be caused to the Conservation Area and the Museum’s outstanding Grade I listed buildings if the proposal were to go ahead. We were also heartened by the level of concern and objection registered by conservation organisations and prominent individuals. The Georgian Group, Save Britain’s Heritage, the Ancient Monuments Society, Heritage of London Trust and The London Society all opposed the scheme and objections from distinguished individuals included:
Prof David Watkin, University of Cambridge, who wrote “This proposed extension… would wreak great damage to the British Museum, a world-famous, listed, classical icon…The scheme flouts deliberately and necessarily all the hard won principles of how to insert new work in the context of listed buildings and conservation areas.” (20.7.09, Written Representation to Camden Council)
Prof David Walker, formerly St Andrew’s University, who concentrated on the poor quality of advice from English Heritage which, he stated: “takes absolutely no account of the importance of Smirke’s museum which is the greatest monument of the neo-Greek in Britain…or of the Edward VII Galleries which in many people’s view…is the finest piece of classicism built in Britain in the Early 20th century… The statement that the new pavilions would sit comfortably within the existing principle(sic!) buildings is outrageous…I am amazed that English Heritage neither recognise the importance of the architecture, nor the cost of so recently restoring it to its original perfection, wholly met out of public funds.” (2.7.09, Written Representation to Camden Council)
At the local level opposition was led by the Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee and the Camden Civic Society. These two bodies wrote jointly on 14 July to the Chief Executive of English Heritage requesting that they withdraw their formal Letter of Advice to Camden Council. To date, we have received no answer from English Heritage.
The BCAAC’s major areas of concern were the gross overdevelopment the proposal entailed and the impact this would have had on the existing Museum buildings.
It would have entombed the wonderful Grade I listed Arched Reading Room by completely surrounding it with five storey buildings leaving only a deep slot two metres wide between the old building and the new. This would have almost totally blocked out the natural north and west light to the Arched Reading Room.
The proposal would also have mutilated the newly restored North Facade of the courtyard by punching holes in its base.
Finally the proposal would have demolished the existing brick buildings at the end of Malet Street (in the scale and style of Georgian Bloomsbury) and replaced them with an inappropriate steel and glass façade.
BLOOMSBURY CONSERVATION AREA ADVISORY COMMITTEE
c/o Hugh Cullum Architects
61B Judd Street
London WC1H 9QT
Tel 020 7383 7647 / 07775 582 821
Fax 020 7387 7645
The Guardian report:
Richard Rogers's British Museum extension plan turned down
Mark Brown, arts correspondent guardian.co.uk, Friday 24 July 2009 19.14 BST
The British Museum's plans for a £135m glass-pavilioned extension have been dealt a serious blow by council planners who sided with local objectors and turned the scheme down at the first hurdle.
Officials at the museum were pondering their course of action after the surprise decision by Camden Council's planning committee to refuse permission, by five votes to four, after a three-hour debate on Thursday night.
The scheme was by architect Richard Rogers's practice Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners. The decision comes a month after Rogers's scheme for Chelsea Barracks in London was dropped by Qatari developers after, the architect has alleged, interference from the Prince of Wales.
It had been thought that the extension's biggest problem would be money, not planning. Earlier this week the Guardian revealed that the culture department had overcommitted its capital spending budget by £100m putting at risk major schemes by national arts organisations – including the museum scheme to which the government pledged £22.5m in 2007.
The anxiety in the arts community over possible government capital spending cuts is reflected in a letter to today's Guardian. Both Tate Modern's planned redevelopment and the new BFI film centre are threatened and the leaders of 21 cultural organisations have signed a letter calling for the schemes to continue.
The expansion scheme was expected to sail through, but councillors appear to have been swayed by objections from the Bloomsbury Conservation Society.
Architect Hugh Cullum, who gave the society's presentation, admitted even he was surprised but "it was a great result. We're very relieved. We're hoping that they will go back to the drawing board and come back with a scheme that is smaller, more modest, more sensitive and would, of course, be cheaper."
The plan had been for the British Museum's 17,000 square metre north-west extension to be mainly used for behind the scenes work such as storage and conservation laboratories. It would, though, include a major new exhibition space.
Camden council released a statement saying: "After careful consideration the committee decided that the proposed benefits of the scheme did not outweigh their concerns about the design within its context. The council will continue to respond to the concerns of the community and other interested parties looking to take this project forward."