A huge leaded bay window, mosaic panels, a pair of griffins above the stone steps. This is the familiar entrance of Canterbury’s town gallery and library, better known as The Beaney Institute and Royal Museum.
Except, like the name – it is now the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge – it has changed. The 1899 facade has changed courtesy of dry and wet rot, death watch beetles and more. The window has been completely rebuilt, the fragments of mosaic reset and there is a newly carved griffin.
But think again: a flight of steps and not a slope or lift in sight? This cannot be a cultural institution in the year 2012! As I strolled along Canterbury’s beautiful and tourist-thronged High Street I was outraged to see all the signage in place but the old façade apparently closed up in favour of a new one around the corner. Thankfully I was wrong. The day before re-opening no one would leave the front door standing open. But the side entrance (think of it as the kitchen door) on Best Lane is where most locals are expected to arrive.
Behind Best Lane is where the museum has expanded fifty per cent both back and sideways by dint of a compulsory purchase order on an old B&B and £14.2million. It is also where it delivers its biggest disappointment in one hit. It is cumbersome with no acknowledgement of the texture of the side street in this oldest area of Canterbury in its materiality or fenestration. Yes it is brick, yes it nods at the large central window of the historic Beaney façade. But it does so clumsily the brick and the angled glass come across as sub Stirling with nothing to rival the far better entrance attempts in the same materials at say Pallant House in Chichester or Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.
This project has been designed by Siddell Gibson and John Miller Architects. That is to say John Miller won the project and passed it on to Sidell Gibson when it was incorporated by them. Associate Paul Martin had two years working with Miller and Su Rogers before they retired. Inside the entrance the Miller magic emerges with a quality of space and materials that is recognisable from projects such as its entrance at Tate Britain. Leisurely long white steps draw you up the two metres to the ground floor level. And yes here is the platform lift. Above equally white staircases curl up one side. This is promising, as is the café next door in one of the old galleries the external window now internal and the view lightly obscured by an installation of skeins of beautiful, bright orange, pink and red.
The Tate Britain project is also an accessible entrance to the side of the main building entrance and its axis, but can’t take on the whole gallery’s plan as effectively as this does. The axes old and new intersect in the new lobby where the heart of the circulation lies. It’s navigationally and symbolically neat. And if leaflets hadn’t taken over a complete wall of the lobby following a late decision to locate the town’s busy visitors centre here then it might have even more presence. The galleries are given a little more visibility along the axis by the opening up of one of the ground floor galleries with an internal window and new door.
The new galleries with their colours informed by paint scrapes, their new display cases and back lit ceiling lights were in contrast to the institutional finishes of the library and its incredibly tight floor to ceiling heights. The library comes across as, basically, mean. Sidell Gibson’s Martin explains that they had to fit in a mezzanine – without messing up all the other levels across the museum and library. Cut outs between the two floors were an attempt to make this seem less oppressive and, on my visit, those who had been in on the design process were pleased that they seemed alleviate the sense of claustrophobia. But the white and grey that predominate and the narrowness of everything from plan to bookshelves allow no sense of expansiveness even when there is a double height space or a turquoise highlight.
The library will no doubt bring in locals however. There is more of its local history collection accessible and more pushchair parking for its children’s events. And even pre-renovation those who struggled to make it into the bowels of the old galleries managed to find their way to the library, also at the back of a building. So with library, café, visitors’ centre and gallery the council is hoping that visitors for one will use the other. Fifteen years ago the Whitefriars shopping centre opened at the other end of the city centre. The Beaney and Keith William’s Marlowe Theatre are meant in some way to rebalance the city with culture in the old end of the city. In fact they recalibrate its scale. These buildings on back land sites have the same affect as Whitefriars (and arguably the Cathedral) of dwarfing the historic streets and making them seem even more like a stage set.