“At the time it was built it was extraordinary, a technological marvel that liberated huge amounts of public space, while also creating a hideaway in the heart of the city.”
For Helen Gough, Lead Director – Buildings & Construction, at JLL’s UK offices, the Great Court at the British Museum is a haven in the middle of London. But as she points out, it’s more than a place for busy Londoners to eat lunch and tourists to take a breather from museum exhibits – it’s a space with its own architectural credentials.
“It’s an inspiring space, not just because of what’s in there, but because of how the building has been transformed,” says Gough.
The Great Court is the largest covered public square in Europe but for 150 years, it was an unknown space, closed to the public and taken up by the British Library’s vast collection of books. When the British Library moved north to Euston in 1997 the space was suddenly available, meaning the public would be able to navigate through it en route to the museum.
A design competition was launched, with Foster and Partners winning the tender for the £100 million refurbishment. Their design was loosely based on Foster’s roof concept at the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany, and is constructed from steel beams and over 3,000 panes of glass, none of which are the same. Walking around the two-acre space, the differences between the panes makes the vista change with each step.
However, the London design was not without controversy. When it opened, it emerged that part of the south facade was constructed with the wrong type of stone – French Anstrude Roche Claire limestone, rather than British Portland stone. But while the critics debated the details of the design, visitors took in the bigger picture.
“The most important thing is that interplay Foster managed to achieve between contemporary architecture and something that is a listed building. He showed how you can breathe life into a new building without losing the history,” says Gough.
A space fit for a queen
Opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000, the glass dome allows light to constantly filter into the Great Court and create a modern thoroughfare for the millions of visitors who pass through each year.
Gough fell in love with the space while working in the early years of her career as a surveyor –overseeing a program of stonework repair and restoration on the front –elevation of the Museum.
“Reclaiming the hidden space within these buildings is awe inspiring, and encourages you to look at the museum through new eyes, ensuring that it stays world class and a destination of choice” she says.
Gough likens the interplay of the design between modern architecture and historical foundations to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, a former railway shed with a single span vaulted roof that was transformed into a national museum for art and civilization and opened in 1986.
Such projects have increased awareness around the possibility of combining old and new architecture, she believes, especially important in a city like London, which has so many historical buildings. They have also encouraged those working on regeneration projects to make them more accessible to the public. The area in which the British Museum is located – such as nearby Tottenham Court Road station, which is currently being redeveloped as part of the Crossrail project – is undergoing major infrastructure changes that will open it up and allow for more public spaces.
“It’s all helped to show that we don’t have to knock buildings down to create fantastic architecture. Instead we can transform existing buildings by being creative, brave and bold, and with that ensure a stimulating and dynamic urban landscape,” she concludes.
Article courtesy of JLL Realviews, written by Alwynne Gwilt