Dow Jones Architects’ additions to the Garden Museum attest to a sensitive understanding of its site and programme, finds Sasha Bhavan
Six months ago, passing Lambeth Palace on the top floor of the bus, I held up my phone to capture an intriguing cube of folded bronze rising into view. Speaking to its architect, Alun Jones of Dow Jones, I realise that my response was on cue, exactly the reaction he had anticipated – the building making its presence felt.
Ten years ago Dow Jones – then a young practice established by Jones and Biba Dow – won a competition to adapt the interior of a deconsecrated church next to Lambeth Palace for the Garden Museum – the first in Britain, founded in 1977. The museum has at its heart the tomb of John Tradescant, bringer of the plane tree to Britain, and collector of curiosities which in 1683 formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The Garden Museum’s remit is to celebrate the design, history and culture of gardens and designed landscape.
Led by director Christopher Woodward, the museum was an inspired client with an ambitious vision. Dow Jones’ interior scheme was to be phase one of a larger, long-term programme of works, and having completed the first phase the same architect went on to win and now build the second phase.
A multifarious brief and clearly defined budget presented considerable challenges, all elegantly addressed in a well-considered, respectful and apparently seamless integration of history with contemporary use.
A pleasing simplicity runs through the scheme, from fundamental organisation to choice of materials and fine detailing. It begins with a clear separation of functions aligned to building form. The church, brimming with historical reference, holds the exhibition space, galleries, archives and quiet study spaces, while the new cloister building accommodates the busy/noisy education spaces and cafe. In the residual irregular-shaped land to the north, between the church and the boundary, is the back-of-house space.
The architect describes the interior of the church as resembling an Italian hill town with a central market square surrounded by places to look at and from. Looking down from a strategically located pulpit/DJ space on the stair, you understand what Jones means when he describes the nave as a “quasi-public square”.
The ‘hill town’ is constructed from cross-laminated timber, which in the wrong hands can be unforgiving and difficult to detail. The phase-one stairs and walkway had, over time, yellowed as compared with the phase-two work. This was dealt with by coating it all with a stained linseed oil and flame retardent, which has the effect of recessing it into the background, making the space appear larger. The stain is unifying and makes sense of the slightly curious, unfinished feel of the phase-one installation when it stood alone. There do still remain some slightly uncomfortable relationships where the CLT cuts across windows and is raw on the outside, but overall there is a sense of uncluttered, simple spaces holding priceless artefacts, and seamlessly integrating precious historic built elements.
The connection of the church to the new cloister is minimal, with a single doorway carefully adjusted to create it. Moving from the old church, with its heavy stone and soaring gothic arches to the lightweight, low-lying, transparent new building, the contrast is dramatic and successful. Three bronze pavilions with a connecting glass cloister laid directly over the old churchyard are described eloquently by the architect as a “precious sequence of spaces around a green oasis, deeply layered and structured by natural light”. This ensures that the new is both modest and impressive.
As you look along the cloister in any direction, at the end you see a pool of light thrown down from a rooflight. The minimal palette of stone, bronze shingle, glass and oak is calming and complementary.
Dan Pearson’s quiet, restrained yet opulent garden at the centre of the oasis echoes in plan the irregular ‘public square’ within the church. His verdant green sits beautifully against the bronze/red cladding, a deliberate play of colour between landscape and architecture. The bronze shingles will stay bright inside but tarnish outside, bringing texture and variety through ageing and weathering and subtle differences occurring in the natural patina of the materials.
I particularly appreciated the sensitive way the tombs and ledgers were carefully lifted and replaced exactly where they lay before, both in and outside. They enrich the surface of the floors and walls and speak of history and time passing in a modern, just completed building.
The tour de force is the way in which the completed building sits so comfortably on the site, creating beautiful views to the river and through the trees to Lambeth Palace. This is even more admirable when you learn of the hideously complex 3D matrix the architects built to discover where they could put down foundations and run services, once the nine protected trees, protected views, the grade II* listing, archaeological artefacts and 36,000 bodies lying just below the surface had all been factored in. A 300mm reinforced super raft was used to float over the bodies, and Stockholm soil was used to protect the tree roots – something I hadn’t heard of but went straight back to look up.
The building received lottery funding for construction but otherwise has no public funding. It relies on donations and revenue generated from events, (wedding parties are held here 40 weekends a year – hence the DJ spot on the stair). Dow Jones has cleverly laid out the interior and designed the furniture so that it can be transformed in a trice from a working museum, cafe and shop into a venue for private events, and the education spaces can be used for classes of 40 or hold an audience of 75 for a lecture.
Behind all this is a visionary, committed and supportive client who understands the importance of collaboration in making a successful building. Really good buildings can only be realised when a client trusts and understands the design team, and works with them through every aspect of the design, from concept, to construction, to the building in use – for example choosing and placing the furniture, as has been done here. For an apparently modest, single-storey building, this museum extension, and most fittingly its landscape, has a powerful presence.
I asked Alun Jones whether he would miss the project, which has spanned the life of his practice, he paused and said that he would. My experience is that projects like this take a central role in your life, and the thrill of completion is tinged with a sadness at giving up the intimate relationship developed as you design, build and crawl all over a building, detailing and snagging as you go.
Dow Jones Architects
Christopher Bradley Hole (front garden), Dan Pearson Studio (cloister)
CLT and exterior timber frame