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A New Museum for London pt II

Updated: Jun 7

On a crisp and sunny February afternoon, a privileged group of 10 CAF members assembled at West Smithfields in anticipation of an early glimpse of the new Museum of London spaces as they begin to take shape.

We were met by Museum Director Sharon Ament and Stephanie Kirkness from Museum of London and whilst booting up in PPE, Sharon shared a few slides to set out her vision for the new museum.

Described as a series of interlocking exhibition galleries around a common theme of ‘Time’, allowing the visitor to time-travel through a procession of differing spaces. “Our time, past time, real time, imagined time, deep time…. “the list of galleries becomes a time traveler’s odyssey. 

For now these time travels are all promises for the future as the interiors, designed by Stanton Williams, Asif Khan, Julian Harrup and Atelier Bruckners, are yet to materialise. Instead, our voyage is one of architecture… pure in its naked, stripped back form revealing a hidden heritage and beautiful craftsmanship.  

Our journey is nonetheless a journey through time, as we are taken from the 1860’s Victorian splendor and deep vaulted brickwork basements and culminating at the 1960’s heroic space of the poultry market.  It is evident that the vision of time travel will not only be a narrative to the exhibits but one of the building fabric itself.

There are two principle spaces, The General Market and The Poultry Market.  These are separated by a street, ‘West Poultry Avenue’, a legacy of the transportation lanes of the former market use.  This street acts as buffer between the two galleries and as Sharon explains “is a fundamental part of the visitor experience”. This connecting street and indeed the surrounding streets are conceived as a shared territory, where open space and public realm merge with multiple exhibition entrances to allow the visitor unfettered access to the museum spaces, creating a permeable piece of city.

We leave the West Poultry Avenue and enter The General Market, a double height Victorian hall, stripped of decades of clutter to reveal the carcass of Victorian splendor.  Beautiful cast iron columns order the plan whilst old cast iron fireplaces hang precariously in what must have once been rooms on an upper floor.  We are told the mezzanine floor is to be reinstated, which makes the timing of our visit all the more special as we enjoy the proportions and grandeur of the double height space.

Almost Square in plan, The General Market is arranged around the central dome with its radial cast iron structure and clerestory windows.  This expressed structure is a prominent focal point of the space, Sharon described how earlier designs looked to provide a spiral staircase below the dome as vertical circulation, but these ideas were rejected as they would diminish the sense of space.  Instead, a new large public stair sits off centre, which takes the visitor below ground to the subterranean galleries.  The walls to this stair are built with pigmented concrete, pink in hue with an

uneven horizontal line, alluding to geological strata, as the visitor descends through layers into ‘past time’ galleries below.

The below ground spaces are more intimate, a late discovery behind bricked up openings revealed a previously unknown world of brick vaults and buttress walls. All the brickwork had been cleaned and preserved to reveal the stoic London walls, uncomplicated and monolithic. The services are to run within floor voids to allow the brickwork vaulted ceiling to be expressed and enjoyed. There is to be a new “shop window” within the perimeter wall, which will reveal the adjacent Thameslink train line.  This will allow train passengers to see into the museum as a passing vista and will become a wonderful opportunity to advertise the Museum and attract new visitors.

We continued our journey, up and through more intimate spaces, timber structures and mansard roofs, until we emerge onto the roof with wonderful views across to St Paul’s, the Shard and the Old Bailey.   

The newly crafted bronze roof of the cupola glints in the sun.

On we go, back down to ground and towards the poultry market. We rise to the first floor, through a series of compressed spaces to arrive at the big reveal.  The enormity of the single span roof of the Poultry Market is extraordinary.  The Victorian market had burned down in the 1950’s and a new building was completed in 1962.  Its roof is claimed to be the largest concrete shell structure ever built, and the largest clear spanning dome roof in Europe.  Designed by Ove Arup this feat of engineering is column-less over its 70m span and it is only 9 cm thick at its thinnest, peppered with glass lens to provide beautiful top light to the galleries below.  The Main contractor only took possession in August 2023 when the traders vacated, and the space is already cleared to uncover the true potential of this space, as a crescendo to the visitor experience.

Sharon described the construction journey ahead of phased completion, with the first galleries opening in 2026 and subsequent phases in 2027 and 2028.  She sees this as a blessing, as an opportunity to keep up construction quality whilst providing the museum with multiple opportunities for multiple inaugurations, allowing the museum to take its place as one of London’s key cultural attractions in the heart of the City.

Thank you to Andrew and Rowena for organising this privileged viewing and to Sharon Ament and Stephanie Kirkness and for their time and wonderful insight.

Lee Higson, words & photos Member of City Architecture Forum



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