The former Geffrye Museum has been reborn – maintaining its domestic scale and charm, but expanded with basement excavations, pavilions and a pub
The rebirth of the Museum of the Home – formerly the Geffrye Museum – has been a long time coming. After ten years of planning, three years of closure, two top architects (David Chipperfield Architects then Wright & Wright Architects), and £18.1m of funding, the popular museum, located in Hoxton in the London borough of Hackney, finally re-opens its doors next week on 12 June.
Yet anyone passing by the front of the 18th century former almshouses might be surprised to learn that anything had happened to the grade I-listed building. Not that this is a problem. It’s just how Wright & Wright wanted it.
‘We’re not interested in a big ego project – we’re trying to create the best museum,’ says partner Clare Wright, adding that they were keen to respect the buildings that had come before them.
But the largely unchanged frontage is deceptive. Inside and to the rear, the changes have been significant and plentiful, including two new garden buildings, a new rear entrance, and a new museum café in what was a Victorian pub.
The result of this radical reimagining is 50% more public area and 80% more exhibition space, and a hugely improved visitor experience that nevertheless retains the charm of the original buildings and the domestic scale so appropriate to the nature of the museum.
‘It’s transformational. It’s the same, but it’s so different as well,’ says Museum of the Home director Sonia Solicari, who said the museum felt deeply the responsibility of changing a building that was a favourite to so many as it was.
But change was necessary. Rising visitor numbers in the narrow thoroughfare through the 1714 almshouses led to bottlenecks, and links out to the beautiful gardens were poor. The museum needed more space to create new permanent displays in addition to the Rooms Through Time roomsets, and to expand its programming in other ways.
Worst of all, the almshouses had serious structural problems, dodgy drainage that led to unpleasant seepages, poor acoustics, and fire safety issues that needed addressing.
David Chipperfield’s solution, which was dropped after failing to secure planning amid much hoo-ha, proposed a substantial new build element at the south eastern corner of the site which would have involved the deeply unpopular demolition of the former Marquis of Lansdown pub. Wright & Wright has managed to provide the necessary new space by taking a completely different approach in which the almshouses, rather than just requiring extensive remedial work, turned out to be the key to the success of the whole expansion project by providing additional exhibition and public space at both basement and first floor level.
As the architect investigated the low basement’s structural problems, they realised that its structural integrity had been compromised historically by the proximity of a raised level at the front (the legacy of a rubbish dump), and by the removal long ago of the staircases and party walls of the individual almshouses. Another factor was that the first floors no longer stretched the full width of the house. Wright & Wright chose not just to remedy these problems but also to excavate by 900mm to create floor-to-ceiling dimensions that were sufficient – albeit fairly tight – to introduce a new level of Home Galleries exhibition space. Formerly blocked in windows to the rear garden – which is at a lower level at the front – were reinstated and a number of doors introduced to give direct access to the outside as well as introducing natural light, carefully controlled by blinds. Acoustic and fire safety issues were rectified.
The result is an enfilade of new galleries, each exploring a different aspect of home and inviting visitors to consider what home means to them. Grown ups of varying vintage will enjoy the nostalgia of familiar items; children may well puzzle over such relics as a rotary dial landline phone. Along the way there is interpretation of what the spaces would have been used for – laundry or coal storage, for example. A poetic touch, that could easily go unnoticed, is the use of bronze floor inlay to trace the positions of the lost staircases and party walls.
The reinstated first floor is now accessed from the library via a beautiful oak staircase, and becomes part of the extended visitor route, with a Collections Library and Study Room and further displays about the almshouses and the site. As well as benefitting from new secondary glazing, The Rooms Through Time include some new interpretations, including a 1970s African-Caribbean front room, as well as the Room of Now and a display of supposed domestic ‘game-changers’ such as IKEA’s Billy bookcase and Alexa.
The new main museum entrance is to the rear opposite Hoxton station, and leads straight into Branson Coates’ curvaceous 1998 extension, which now provides a spacious reception with buggy park. Wright & Wright’s interventions – including a curved reception desk and a staircase to the lower exhibition level, set the tone for the calm material palette – solid oak furniture upholstered with sage green leather, bronze and brass detailing and polished floor screed.
Not all the required additional accommodation could be absorbed into the almshouses. Wright & Wright designed two new pavilions at either end of the garden. A Staffordshire blue brick-clad flexible studio space topped with a green roof slots into a wedge of leftover space near the entrance, and looks as if it’s always been there. Equally restrained is the other new build, a Learning Pavilion/events room opening onto both the main garden and the herb garden. This is clad in Siberian larch in a nod to the timber-clad walkway extension added in the early 20th century to the rear of the almshouse chapel, and topped with a zinc standing seam roof. And the architects were glad to be able to ‘stitch in’ the previously-to-be-demolished pub to provide a new café.
What comes through is that this is a most generous scheme. Not so much in terms of the dimensions of the new gallery spaces, which are determinedly domestic in scale, but in its attitude to both the original buildings and the visitors. Oak benches have thoughtful handrails for the ease of the less nimble and the increased easy access to the garden will be a boon. It’s not only the renovated, now-sound almshouses that have benefited. Branson Coates’ 1998 extension in particular, gets a chance to shine in its appropriation as the new reception area.
A larger, new build element as proposed in the Chipperfield plan might have provided more expansive additional exhibition space, and maybe given more clarity at that end of the site. But I for one would rather have the quite tight but full of character new galleries that Wright & Wright has carved out, which seem more appropriate to the spirit of the museum. And it’s pleasing that the former pub can be put to new use as part of the museum campus. Director Solicari is thrilled not only at the potential for new events including festival programming, cinema and theatre that the scheme provides, but at the realisation of a project that promises to equip the museum well for its future, while respecting its rich past.
Museum of the Home, 136 Kingsland Road, Hoxton, London E2 8EA
Architect Wright & Wright Architects
Construction Quinn London
Exhibition design ZMMA
Exhibition fit-out Elmwood Projects
Structural engineering Alan Baxter
Environmental and services engineering Max Fordham
Quantity surveying and project management Gardiner & Theobald
Living rooftop design Dusty Gedge
Brand and wayfinding DN&Co