Second flowering for Garden Museum

In its second intervention at the Garden Museum in Lambeth, Dow Jones Architects has delivered a small haven from urban London

Pavilions, plants and tombs pushing up into and around the new cloister at the Garden Museum.
Pavilions, plants and tombs pushing up into and around the new cloister at the Garden Museum. Credit: David Grandorge

A tight church site in central London is not perhaps where you would expect to find the Garden Museum. But here it is in the deconsecrated St Mary-at-Lambeth, alongside the traffic spilling off Lambeth Bridge, at the far end of the ever extending parade of the South Bank. The pillows of soft Kentish ragstone that were used to rebuild the church in Victorian times unremarkably anchor the rash of towers along the banks of the River Thames. 

Dow Jones Architects started work on the Garden Museum in 2007. Won in competition, it was its breakthrough project, working with museum director Christopher Woodward who had previously commissioned Eric Parry’s fine extension of the Holburne Museum in Bath. At this stage Dow Jones designed a temporary exhibition gallery and a space for the permanent collection above, inside a CLT structure at the back of the nave. The centre was occupied by an event space, shop and often children on a school visit or people sheltering from the rain, so could be noisy. 

As a cheap and cheerful solution the first phase was a revelation. Even so, the museum still seemed small, hemmed in by its historic churchyard as well as its many activities. But it had ambitions. In 2013 Dow Jones won a competition for phase two with landscape designer Dan Pearson. In the intervening years the practice had designed a lecture theatre for the Science Museum and the crypt at Christ Church Spitalfields. Here it wanted to create a haven from the city, set apart from passing buses and the heat of the pavement. 

Director Woodward wanted visitors to feel refreshed and happy; the museum should reflect that ‘gardening is a happy subject’. 

  • Inside the church Down Jones has drawn the two phases of galleries together with a CLT walkway.
    Inside the church Down Jones has drawn the two phases of galleries together with a CLT walkway. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Seen from across the nave with the walkway and exhibition space running most of the length of the transept.
    Seen from across the nave with the walkway and exhibition space running most of the length of the transept. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Darker corners are used for objects more easily damaged by daylight.
    Darker corners are used for objects more easily damaged by daylight. Credit: David Grandorge
  • From the entrance across the museum’s church interior you can catch a glimpse of the door onwards to the courtyard extension.
    From the entrance across the museum’s church interior you can catch a glimpse of the door onwards to the courtyard extension. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Dow Jones has designed the CLT forms to frame and work around the existing church.
    Dow Jones has designed the CLT forms to frame and work around the existing church. Credit: David Grandorge
  • The central volume of the name has been protected as an events space. Simplified by a polished concrete floor.
    The central volume of the name has been protected as an events space. Simplified by a polished concrete floor. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Some interventions can feel counter intuitive such as panels cutting through window openings.
    Some interventions can feel counter intuitive such as panels cutting through window openings. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Through the rood screen to the entrance to the Pelham Chapel, now the Walcot Room and home to some of the objects of Tradescant’s ‘ark’.
    Through the rood screen to the entrance to the Pelham Chapel, now the Walcot Room and home to some of the objects of Tradescant’s ‘ark’. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Finding homes for objects of both the museum and the church was an important part of Dow Jones’ role.
    Finding homes for objects of both the museum and the church was an important part of Dow Jones’ role. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Inside the Walcot Room. Not far from where a glass floor shows the stairs down to the tombs of five archbishops – which were found during construction.
    Inside the Walcot Room. Not far from where a glass floor shows the stairs down to the tombs of five archbishops – which were found during construction. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Apparently ‘odd’ spaces offer different opportunities for curation. Here short stay ‘magazine’ exhibitions live.
    Apparently ‘odd’ spaces offer different opportunities for curation. Here short stay ‘magazine’ exhibitions live. Credit: David Grandorge
  • With an event in progress.
    With an event in progress. Credit: David Grandorge
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The event space in the central volume of the nave has been protected so it can host talks, weddings and launches. Extra galleries – including the ‘ark’ of treasures from plant collector John Tradescant – and an archive room are built around the edges, in the chancel at the front of the church and Pelham Chapel to the side. They are linked to the earlier galleries at the back of the church by a first floor walkway that frames the entrance, resetting the axis of the church and directing your eye to the glimmer of garden light at the far corner. 

Through this single new entrance is the extension: small bronze-lapped pavilions pushing up out of a perfect little planted courtyard, a delicate cloister around it drawing together education rooms and café. Rooflights allow sunlight to wash the historic garden wall of Lambeth Palace. A rather scrappy churchyard has been miraculously translated into the spiritual and gardening locus of the museum, emphasised by a cathedral of plane trees.

  • The entrance to the bright cloister as seen from inside the shop. A door to the museum offices is hidden in the shop’s shelves to the left.
    The entrance to the bright cloister as seen from inside the shop. A door to the museum offices is hidden in the shop’s shelves to the left. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Through the glass to the courtyard.
    Through the glass to the courtyard. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Looking into the education room, the light on Lambeth Palace’s garden wall adding depth to the space.
    Looking into the education room, the light on Lambeth Palace’s garden wall adding depth to the space. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Inside the education room. Behind the wooden doors lies a kitchen, storage and space for organisation.
    Inside the education room. Behind the wooden doors lies a kitchen, storage and space for organisation. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Along the street the extension has a more solid presence.
    Along the street the extension has a more solid presence. Credit: David Grandorge
  • But inside the layers of plants, tomb, glass and café give a rich visual layering.
    But inside the layers of plants, tomb, glass and café give a rich visual layering. Credit: David Grandorge
  • The grand tomb of Captain Blythe who brought back breadfruit to the UK.
    The grand tomb of Captain Blythe who brought back breadfruit to the UK. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Directly linking the museum space and café this enclosed cloister sits right up against the outside wall of St Mary-at-Lambeth.
    Directly linking the museum space and café this enclosed cloister sits right up against the outside wall of St Mary-at-Lambeth. Credit: David Grandorge
  • The plants extend into the interiors, here given sustenance from the sun coming from a rooflight above.
    The plants extend into the interiors, here given sustenance from the sun coming from a rooflight above. Credit: David Grandorge
  • The lapped bronze is retaining its shine where used internally.
    The lapped bronze is retaining its shine where used internally. Credit: David Grandorge
  • From inside the café appears as a slice into the Dan Pearson gardens.
    From inside the café appears as a slice into the Dan Pearson gardens. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Slim columns keep the structure light.
    Slim columns keep the structure light. Credit: David Grandorge
  • The listed wall fronts the street, the café is framed in bronze while the taller volumes are broken up with lanterns to the pavilions.
    The listed wall fronts the street, the café is framed in bronze while the taller volumes are broken up with lanterns to the pavilions. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Designing between listed plane trees proves worthwhile when you feel the full shady effect in the summer.
    Designing between listed plane trees proves worthwhile when you feel the full shady effect in the summer. Credit: David Grandorge
  • The bronze is designed to be a little like the peeling plane trunks in its mottled layers of colour. Garden Museum, London.
    The bronze is designed to be a little like the peeling plane trunks in its mottled layers of colour. Garden Museum, London. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Facing towards the museum entrance and the River Thames this café space is less protected from the busy city but still quiet.
    Facing towards the museum entrance and the River Thames this café space is less protected from the busy city but still quiet. Credit: David Grandorge
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Of course there were no miracles. A constraints diagram showed the challenge of keeping sight lines to the 1850 Blore Building, home of the archbishops of Canterbury, from Lambeth High Street, and of manoeuvring around the grade II* listed tombs of Tradescant and Captain Bligh and nine tree protection orders. Dow Jones’ Alun Jones also explains how the practice wanted to create an urban edge (which works) and not compete with the museum entrance at the church’s west door (harder, because the extension has a welcoming openness impossible to rival in a grade II* church). This drove the form. In section the constraints are even more punishing. With 36,000 bodies buried on the site everything had to be done in the first metre  of ground – exactly where the protected tree roots run through the site. So a lightweight timber structure on a very thin raft was used. ‘It is amazing we fitted anything in,’ says Jones. ‘That’s what I am most proud of.’

Back in the church, the limewashed CLT can seem a little dumpy and the compromises of display walls over windows and a heating vent in the old altar position lack the elegance of the new-build neighbour. But new services, some areas with first-rate gallery conditions and dark corners for paintings mean that the museum has a certain freedom in its curation: letters from Gertrude Jekyll, Beth Chatto’s archive, garden designs by Frederick Gibberd, Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, spades, forks, insecticides and films on sheds. So get absorbed in the rich and diverse set of exhibits – then admire the architecture while having coffee amid cloisters and pavilions.

IN NUMBERS

£4.5m
Total contract cost

820m2
Area (inside the church) 

520m2
Area (new build)  

1,340m2
Area total

£3,360/m2 
GIFA cost 

 

  • Ideas for design in a hill town inside a church.
    Ideas for design in a hill town inside a church. Credit: Dow Jones
  • This constraints plan shows some of the issues Dow Jones had to design around.
    This constraints plan shows some of the issues Dow Jones had to design around. Credit: Dow Jones
  • Early sketch of the education room.
    Early sketch of the education room. Credit: Dow Jones
  • Early sketch of the interior of the cloister.
    Early sketch of the interior of the cloister. Credit: Dow Jones
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Credits

Client Garden Museum

Architect Dow Jones Architects

Project manager G&T

MEP engineer OR Consulting

Structural engineer Momentum

Landscape design (cloister) Dan Pearson

Landscape design (front garden) Christopher Bradley-Hole

Heritage Neil Burton

Main contractor Rooff

Bronze Aurubis

CLT and exterior timber frame Kingspan

Polished concrete Steysons Granolithic

Joinery Icklesham Joinery

Roofing Bauder

Paint Oricalcum

Sanitary Duravit

Taps Grohe