Soane’s enchanting feelings

The Soane’s extended exhibition space pays dividends, says Eleanor Young

A comparison of the Colosseum, Rome, and the Circus at Bath, from Soane’s office.
A comparison of the Colosseum, Rome, and the Circus at Bath, from Soane’s office.

There is something thrillingly secret about the Sir John Soane’s Museum. The house gradually reveals itself as a subversion of the now familiar Georgian townhouse plan with passageways, shafts of light and sudden stretching of space through courts where you least expect it, and even secret doors. 

And so with the continuing work on the museum in the two Soane-designed houses either side – numbers 12 and 14 – that are slowly being brought into use. Julian Harrap Architects is working on all three after 25 years at the museum and at Soane’s country home, Pitzhanger Manor. So restoration is at its heart. But Harraps still had to work to relieve some of the pressure on Soane’s more exuberant number 13. 

This was long planned. During architectural historian John Summerson’s tenure at the Soane last century he cleared the spaces of cabinets up through the building for use as a lift shaft – now realised. William Holford designed a stripped back library to replace the legal offices whose rent had sustained the museum for decades and is where the exhibitions gallery now resides. Director Margaret Richardson had bought number 14 and under the current directorship of Tim Knox (one time assistant curator of RIBA Drawings Collections) that has been occupied and number 12 has finally opened to the public. 

It is clearly an addendum to the museum. You might deposit your bags here but you have to go back out to the front door of the main house to come in properly. And in the slightly revised sequence of spaces you are allowed into number 12 last and almost as a concession to the problem of two way traffic on narrow stairs. Now visitors descend the much-repaired and elegantly structured cantilevered stone staircase in number 12.
So after the packed rooms of Soane’s collectomania you come to the temporary galleries. These spaces still have the rich and complex sense of Soane but are invested with quite a different quality of calm. There are unexpected curves, a Crace family sky ceiling and colours ranging from intense Etruscan red to calm blue greys. 

Caruso St John has designed the beautiful and expensive looking cabinets here. The curators have made good use of them in the exhibition, borrowing from the British Museum as well as bringing in drawings from living architects. The central table vitrines are built to lean on – the natural, comfortable position when studying drawings in more detail. The curved wall of the front drawing room, now gallery, is mirrored by the curve in the cabinet along this wall. The whole impression is of density and intensity. 

The first exhibition, Stadia, certainly lives up to the space. At its simplest it shows how classical examples have influenced modern stadia. It is full of studies that repay careful attention. Soane’s drawings of the Colosseum show an ancient building that we are now familiar with. And there is plenty of symbolism displaying spoils of war such as the obelisk at the Circus of Maxentius. It is not just on paper, here too is a fourth century bronze goose from the Hippodrome in Constantinople which was perhaps once part of a fountain. But paper can convey so much, as the Piranesi drawing of the Ancient Circus of Mars shows with its fantastical scaled monuments.

The modern drawings are not the labours of love of the older pieces. Three Herzog & de Meuron sketches of the Bird’s Nest national stadium in Beijing are on a menu and receipt. Piano’s San Nicola football stadium in Bari is shown in working drawings while Le Corbusier’s naive plan in coloured pencils of Baghdad Stadium reminds you how simple the big stadium idea is. The London 2012 Olympic stadium, by exhibition sponsor Populous, takes its place with grace and no more space than it deserves in this Olympic year.

On the ground floor a full blown shop compared to a few postcards at the entrance is perhaps the most dramatic change in the experience. But a sense of entering a private domain remains. And the secret doors? You will have to find them for yourself. 


Stadia: Sport and vision in architecture

To 22 September
Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
www.soane.org