In its second intervention at the Garden Museum in Lambeth, Dow Jones Architects has delivered a small haven from urban London
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’.
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.
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.
Total contract cost
Area (inside the church)
Area (new build)
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
CLT and exterior timber frame Kingspan
Polished concrete Steysons Granolithic
Joinery Icklesham Joinery