Witherford Watson Mann’s transformation of the gallery at Somerset House is the first part of a multi-phase project that aims to open up the institution both physically and culturally
RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist 2023
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RIBA West London Regional Award 2023
Courtauld Connects - The Courtauld Institute of Art, Westminster
Witherford Watson Mann Architects for The Courtauld Institute of Art
Contract value: £26.5 million
Cost per m2: £4,990
The transformation of the Courtauld Gallery in its home at Somerset House, London, is the first part of a multi-phase project that aims to open up the institution both physically and culturally.
The gallery occupies the central section of the Grade I-listed Somerset House, facing onto the Strand. The building was designed by William Chambers in the late 18th century as the Royal Academy and has been occupied by the Courtauld Institute since the early 1990s. On first glance, the jury struggled to understand what the architects had done, as much of it is immensely subtle.
The three main moves that transform the gallery are the insertion of a lift; the reworking of the entrance sequence, including a beautiful new stair down to the basement visitor facilities; and re-levelling and opening up the vaults below the entrance to provide a flowing, level space. After spending time in the galleries, however, some of the architects’ less obvious interventions can begin to be read. The volume of the Great Room exhibition space at the top of the building, above the entrance, has been re-revealed after previously being divided up, a new temporary exhibition gallery has been carved out of an office and an attic roof space, and a new gallery has been created at first-floor level from an old painting store.
The work to open up the vaults is a real engineering feat. The self-compacting concrete was cast in-situ beneath the main vehicular entrance to the site, which had to remain in use during the construction. The concrete is seamless and smooth in direct contrast to the uneven, rough brick surface of the original construction. Echoing the flowing nature of the concrete, the space below the vaults flows effortlessly through the basement, belying the multiple different floor levels that previously existed.
The new stair down to the basement is equally a distinctive piece of engineering, one that sits somewhere between tradition and invention. Structured from cantilevered stone, it has a timber handrail that is softly carved and set into the stone with regular steel pins. Both of these interventions are beautifully conceived in their own right, but together they are instrumental in meeting the client’s brief to open up the building.
However, some of the more subtle interventions have in fact had the biggest impact. Notable among these are the careful re-levelling of floors (including externally at the main entrance) to make the gallery accessible, and the insertion of new doors in the main galleries (known as the Fine Rooms) which have greatly improved the ease of visitor flow.
Whilst the building’s listed status limited what could be achieved in terms of sustainability, the work included local fabric improvements, large-scale modernisation of services systems and advanced monitoring to assist with energy management. These interventions have been seamlessly integrated in most parts of the building, so as not to detract from the built heritage. Overall, the jury thought this was an extremely well-judged project, which lets the spirit of the historic building lead the visitor experience, but with some 21st-century creativity to solve some of its inherent complexities.
Client The Courtauld Institute of Art
Contractor Sir Robert McAlpine
Structural engineer Price & Myers
Environmental / M&E engineer Max Fordham
Project management Gardiner & Theobold
Construction managers Sir Robert Mcalpine Special Projects
Permanent exhibition design Nissen Richards Studio
Lighting design ARUP Lighting / Studio ZNA
Access consultant David Bonnett Associates
Historic building assessments Alan Baxter
Planning consultant The Planning Lab
Security consultant Ian Johnson Associates
Fire consultant BB7 Fire
Approved inspector AIS Chartered Surveyors
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