Chelmsford museum of local history 'Towards an Old Architecture', June 2011
New Chelmsford MuseumTowards An Old ArchitectureProhibitively expensive to join, publicly denigrated by the government, proclaimed dead byarguably its most important periodical; the architectural profession is in trouble. The heroicmaster builders; Mies, Aalto, Le Corbusier, Kahn we are told, are anachronisms, architectsshould forget about them and Instead, consider a new incarnation as spatial agents, shopwindow dressing and lamp-shade arranging their way to a better world.How did it come to this? Its difficult to see past that speech of 1984 as the pivotal moment.At that point, architects were challenged to abandon their ivory towers and engage with amore inclusive experience of architecture. Venturi & Scott-Browns Sainsbury extension toThe National Gallery was an interesting start to a conversation focused on how architecturaldiscourse might engage with history and collective cultural experience in this country.Arguably, the current crisis is rooted in a reluctance on the part of the architectural professionas a whole to continue that discussion in a serious way.There have of course been exceptions; the likes of Stirling, Eric Parry and Caruso St-John,have all sought to pick up the discussion from where Venturi & Scott-Brown last left it. Now,Thomas Ford & Partners have added their voice to this important debate with a substantialextension to Chelmsford Museum.
Built as a family home in 1865 for a successful industrialist and set within a large park, mostwould recognise the Grade II Listed Oaklands House as the kind of Victorian suburbanresidence that is now found all over the south east of England, only much larger and moresplendid. Its projecting bay windows, stone rather than stucco and mounted on low steppedplinths, might once have been doorways and its campanile and stone Doric entrance portico,give it an Italianate air.This beautiful building has a chequered history. In the 1920s, the short wing of the original Lshaped residence was demolished, leading to a new southern elevation. ChelmsfordMuseum relocated there in 1930, and the Essex Regiment Museum- accommodated in anugly, black brick structure, built onto the houses southern façade- in the 1970s.It wasnt until 2006, the same year in which Chelmsford Borough Council decided to demolishthe black brick box and re-house the Regimental Museum and important items from thehistoric Marconi factory, in a new high quality extension, that the value of the house wasofficially recognised and it was listed.The client sought to ensure that the proposed extension would not diminish this localtreasure, with a perceptive brief. In addition to asking for a first class building that wouldcomplement the existing house, the brief also stipulated that it should be stand alone yetphysically linked to the house, whose local importance was about to be enhanced by therelocation of the Marconi items to it. Between the Marconi factory and the Essex regiment,just about everyone in Essex would have a familial link to the newly extended museum.
There are a couple of ways that the deft combination of separation and attachment called forby the brief, could have been achieved. The transitional lobby such as employed by Venturi& Scott-Brown at the National Gallery, is one. The link bridge, as employed by Carlo Scarpaat Castelvecchio, Verona is perhaps the only other.At Chelmsford, project architect Simon McCormack, has used both of these approaches, butgiven the required size of the new extension in relation to the existing building, (the grossinternal area of the extension exceeds that of the existing house), this was uncharted territory.Considerable skill was going to be required to make it work architecturally.Le Corbusier proclaimed, the plan is the generator and this dictum proves true here. Theplan of the extension is virtually a mirror image of that of the existing house, a related DNAfrom which a contiguous but independent architectural language would be summoned.In the existing house there is an Oak panelled hall which contains its principal stair, also ofOak but with ornate ironwork. This stair winds upwards, hugging the sides of the square halland terminating in a generous landing, the arrangement giving rise to a double height spacethat is lit, rather dimly, by a stained glass roof-light. Surrounded by other rooms, the hall isdark and womb-like.
There is also a hall in the new extension, but it couldnt feel more different, Reached fromthe old stair hall via corridors that once served the houses demolished short wing, it is adramatic double height foyer/atrium, the transitional lobby mentioned earlier. At ground floorlevel, you arrive at its York stone floor. Here you find the main reception and Marconiexhibits. On the first floor, you are taken onto a bridge (a la Scarpa), of steel, in-laid Oak andframeless glass. 88 years after Le Corbusier compared the Parthenon entablature to theDelage front-wheel brake, we are asked to enjoy the modelling of this bridges rolled profilesand precision engineered connections, as we enjoy the handicraft in the old staircase. Weduly oblige.To its side, the atrium is bounded by the external wall of the house- its lower half, scarredfrom the removal of the black box, now soothed, with a cement slurry balm. To the front andback of the atrium, double height walls of glass allow light to flood in and generous views outto the park and beyond. This space is outside as well as inside, the landlocked stair hallsmodern incarnation and polar opposite.The rest of the new building maintains the clever dialogue with the original. Thus, thedomestic entrance portico of the old house with its doubled-up columns finds itself again,scaled up, in the massive brick entrance portico of the extension, the new public entrance forthe expanded museum. This portico is doubled up too, addressing both the driveway to thebuilding and the expansive grassed area in front of it in a two-way configuration. Privateresidence becomes palazzo and park becomes piazza, the effect heightened by theemployment of a partial coat of arms, salvaged from the site of an 18th century villa that oncestood nearby, now mounted in a panel of lime render built into the brick wall of the newbuilding.
I have mentioned the brick. It is Wheat coloured and it dominates both buildings, but isdisposed differently; structural English bond in the old building with necessarily tall andnarrow apertures and in the new extension, stretcher bond, draped around the buildingsstructural frame like a mantle, gathering in folds or parting at the architects will. Experiencingthe two bonds at the same time makes them obvious and lends the brick a certain animation.Internally the stretcher bond gives way completely to reveal the steel skeleton that holds it upand externally, the cool pre-patinated Rheinzink roof flows downwards, abandoning itspitched form and taking up other shapes, reinforcing the impression of drapery andcomplementing the warm brick perfectly.
The bay windows of the house find their way into the new extension too but appropriatelyenough, on the piano nobile rather than on the ground floor. Two generously proportionedapertures for the grand, timber floored education suite and,– within the embrace of thedouble portico, the Regimental display window, its steel tension supports serving as modernmannered orders , bestow a soupçon of filigree upon the overall composition, a proxy forexisting carved ornament that rescues it from brutality. The shadow and modelling thataccompanies the draping and folding of the brick beneath the education suite windows playsa similar role, the configuration- inspired by Michelangelos Palazzo Capitoline-a vitalintermediary between the civic and intimate scales.In the best traditions of modernism, mass culture is represented along with high art, theextensive areas of glazing which make for such well lit interiors, manifesting themselvesexternally as shop windows. Through them, exhibits and the people viewing them can beseen, making the new museum feel accessible in a way that the existing house never was.Indeed, one of the exhibits, a lone sentry whose uniform could almost be for sale, looks backout towards the park/piazza, from the Regimental window, epitomising both the strategy ofinterconnection and the juxtaposition of the high and the everyday. The billboard strip lightused to illumine the coat of arms at night, seals the deal.
Here in Chelmsford, modern architecture has played its part in the provision of therootedness and continuity with history, that is essential for the healthy development ofcommunity and of architecture itself. The fact that locals, some expressing an avowed dislikefor modern architecture, have received this sophisticated and eloquent building soenthusiastically, testifies to its excellence and hints at how important a genuineunderstanding of, and sympathy for the past, coupled with a studied command ofcontemporary language is, to the making of architecture that is both great and relevant. LeCorbusier both understood and taught this. If architects are to reverse their decline, this is thevocation they must rediscover. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, west elevation. Photo by Paul Riddle Chelmsford Museum of Local History, east elevation. Photo by Paul Riddle Castelvecchio, Verona by Carlo Scarpa, detail of underside of link-bridge. Castelvecchio, Verona by Carlo Scarpa, elevation showing bridge link. The National Gallery, Sainsbury Wing by Venturi & Scott-Brown, transitional lobby. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, transitional lobby containing link bridge. Photo by Paul Riddle Chelmsford Museum of Local History, scanned page from AJ Specification. Oaklands House, existing stair hall, photo by author. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, link bridge. Photo by Paul Riddle. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, atrium floor. Photo by Paul Riddle. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, addressing park. Photo by Paul Riddle. Palazzo Senatorio, Michelangelo, addressing Campidoglio, Rome. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, detail of west elevation. Extended portico, coat of arms, Regimental window, brick,and zinc. Photo by Paul Riddle. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, zinc cladding to west and south elevations. Photo by Paul Riddle. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, detail of zinc cladding. Photo by Paul Riddle. Oaklands House, bay window. Photo by author. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, windows to education suite. Photo by Paul Riddle. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, detail of west elevation. Extended portico, coat of arms, Regimental window, brick,zinc, strip light. Photo by Paul Riddle. Chelmsford Museum of Local History, shop windows; main entrance and atrium. Photo by Paul Riddle.