Portrait of RSHP Graham Stirk at the British Museum Photo: Paul Raftery

The Bigger Picture: Hettie Judah in Conversation with Architect and RSHP Senior Partner, Graham Stirk


Today’s galleries and museums are defined by their encouraging, inclusive spirit – whatever their scale.

As new museums spring up around the world like so many cultural mushrooms, the role they perform are evolving. From a social perspective, museums are no longer just places of learning, display and entertainment: they are sites of physical gathering in a world where people increasingly encounter one another in the digital sphere. The template for many new museums – incorporating social spaces that extend from public zones at street level – was established decades ago in Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s design for the Pompidou Centre.

Over a number of recent projects, architect Graham Stirk – senior partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners – has continued to re-imagine the changing needs of museums and their visitors. For the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum, he brought natural light and suggestions of a green world beyond into a gallery complex that threatened to become overwhelming and disorienting. Many levels below ground, state of the art decontamination and imaging facilities have set a standard for secure loans between museums.

A new conservation department for the Louvre in Liévin sinks facilities for the treatment of sensitive artworks under the ground, leaving a single storey glass-edged segment of the structure visible above ground, bringing natural light in for the conservators. A forthcoming extension to the British Library on Euston Road takes into account the site’s unforeseen popularity as a quiet working space, and will also expand the exhibition and social spaces.

Since joining the practice in 1983, Graham Stirk has also lead projects ranging from the towering Leadenhall Building in the City of London to undulating landscape-sensitive headquarters for the Macallan Whisky distillery in Scotland. He is Project Partner overseeing Burlington Gate, a mixed residential and gallery development structured around a new public arcade in the heart of Mayfair’s art district.

Hettie Judah: I feel cultural spaces have become sites that advocate for contemporary architecture: they’re the places where we the general public can interact fully with these buildings, rather than observing them at a distance, as we might with Lloyds or The Leadenhall Building.

Graham Stirk: That was always interesting about the Pompidou Centre: it was about the anti-monument. It was an object that the people could climb all over and engage with, not just at ground level but within the public realm. The original competition brief was to fill the site with a building. The competition entry basically piled all the gallery into a much bigger building on one side of the site thus creating a public piazza on the other half of the site. The public can rise up escalators, occupy terraces and engage with all levels: it was really anti-institutional, trying to move away from the power and awe of art buildings that are reminiscent of big treasure chests with monumental entrances.

HJ That idea with Pompidou is still so influential.Whether it’s in Moscow at the GES-2 site or the V&A’s new courtyard: there’s a common idea of having public space that draws people in gently.

GS The big institutions have been clawed back by the public and there’s this sense of being able to access things unrestricted. We’re having to consider that with aspects of the British Library extension. Inside every piece of available horizontal surface it is full of people. Apparently, visitors are attracted by free wi-fi.

The British Library is full of people and it has a modest entrance consistent with an academic institution. Our problem was how to break down those boundaries and find ways in which to communicate the incredible collection they have. One component of the extension is engaging with people in new ways through exhibitions, reading matter, sound archives.

HJ There’s been a lot of discussion about the new ways that people are using museums and these public cultural spaces. How did you apply those considerations at Burlington Gate?

GS I think Burlington Gate was never seen as a galleria type of arcade: it was seen more as a sequence of spaces that were quite human in scale which is very typical of Victorian and late Georgian arcades. This typology aimed to increase frontage and provide a place where people could gather under cover, away from the bustle of the street. The arcade idea then became more about common space and by providing events, it could allow people to ponder work displayed.

HJ Within the history of urban wandering, the arcade is an important place. You go not only to look at what’s in the shops: you’re also on display yourself.

GS Like the Italian passeggiata.

HJ Yes, so it’s the human exhibition, as well.

GS I suppose so. The gallery spaces at Burlington Gate are not a series of hermetically-sealed cells: there is showcasing and set-pieces that can begin to draw attention to a cluster of areas that would be dealing with and displaying art. Rather than looking through a window, you can be immersed through windows seven metres high. The idea was that there was a sense of a place for people to gather and meet, to have events or launches that were not relegated to the pavement.

HJ Thinking architecturally, how much consideration do you give to how things might be displayed in a space?

GS I find it exhausting going around exhibitions, I always have. Sometimes it’s rather nice to have other places that you can drift into and then re-engage. I don’t think it’s necessarily about having lots of little spaces: it’s the nature of how they’re curated. Working with the British Museum we were obsessed with bringing daylight into the main special exhibition space, which is a big hangar. The client asked to be able to vary and create more specific narratives around the various exhibitions. It could be Terracotta Warriors– or it could be Roman coins: there’s a great deal of theatrical care in the creation of intimate moments. At the British Museum, you need space that can create the setting for a Viking warship – but, also, you need the flexibility to create something very intimate. We fought very hard to have the garden view with a glazed wall. I thought it was important as you move around the museum to view the landscape and daylight.

HJ Is wanting to get daylight in there partly to do with giving people the idea of escape?

GS I think it’s not just natural light. I think it’s probably also an aspect of contrasting experiences, which is why we worked so hard to create all those gardens. The museum is a very arid experience normally, which is what I love about Menilthe gallery by Renzo Piano in Texas. That’s gorgeous. It’s just gardens, captured: a very simple device, but it connects you with nature. It still has graphic power but the experience of how you move through it is beautifully orchestrated.

HJ Do you spend a lot of time looking at art and going to museums and galleries?

GS I used to do more. Sometimes it depends on how things are curated. I remember seeing Apocalypse many years ago at the Royal Academy. That’s the first time I saw the Chapman Brothers’ Hell. It was a creepy exhibition. There was a work by Tim Noble and Sue Webster called The Undesirables, and the newspapers had reported it as, ‘just bags of rubbish.’ A bank of lights was next to it, and from this pile of rubbish suddenly a shadow was cast on the wall of two people sat in paradise. The way it was curated: coming out of Hell to Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons. The contrast was extraordinary, by sheer shock of alternating responses that you might have to particular objects. I’ll never forget that. The pace of it was sufficient to make the architecture disappear.

HJ Have you ever designed actual exhibitions as well as the spaces?

GS No, and it’s only recently that we’ve been involved in public buildings again. The latest one that, hopefully, we’ll be starting is the British Library. We’re also working on a conservation building where people can visit near Liévin, northern France for the Louvre. We created an art catacomb, and a long glazed wall, which is where all the conservators can work in full daylight. In a way, it’s a completely different response to Pompidou. It’s an archive as a piece of landscape.

HJ You were saying it’s a completely different response to Pompidou but creating an archive underground is very much the opposite of the Children of Men, ark-of-the-arts idea of temples to culture: it shares the anti-monumental approach of Pompidou.

GS There are parallels, but that is a blind facility. If you’ve got Michelangelos and the stuff they get in there, you need a certain level of security, and it becomes delicate in terms of the space people occupy. It’s a question of whether you wish to make something a solid object, which Pompidou didn’t: it chose to be very open-ended. If you want to arrange the building as a sculpture, then you will reinforce the idea of galleries being objects, because they form part of an architectural narrative of what we wish to explore at a particular time – if you’re into that kind of thing (we’re not particularly formalist).

HJ For the British Museum, the Louvre and now the British Library, you’re working with very advanced technical specifications: can you make that part of the design in the way that it is in the Lloyds and Leadenhall Buildings?

GS All of the archiving at the British Museum is in three levels, way below ground. The building is slightly bigger below ground than it is above. One of the problems they had when they were exhibiting in and around the Reading Room is unloading, which meant it was very difficult to have the big blockbuster exhibitions: the likes of Tutankhamun. When they had the Terracotta Warriors in the round Reading Room they had a couple of guys shuffling them across the courtyard (because you can’t get a truck in there) and up the steps, and then up another level. I love the round Reading Room, but to meet with the technical specifications for an international loans programme, it reduced the capacity of what the museum could display. The biggest fears the museum world has are creatures, bugs and damp. So there’s now a whole series of treatment rooms where things are unloaded.

HJ Do you have to create specially sealed environments, almost like surgical units?

GS Yes, we’ve got laboratories down there as well. They’ve got some imaging machinery about ten times more powerful than what’s used on the human body. They can look through metals. Those are lead-lined rooms: blocks of about 600mm thick high-density lead and concrete, which have to be directed down to the core of the earth so that you can’t put anything below them. It’s terrifying stuff. These are obviously created with engineers and equipment specialists. It also has the largest lift in E rope. It’s a piece of landscape that rises out of the ground.

HJ It sounds like Tracy Island!

GS It is: it’s spectacular. It’s about 28 metres long, three metres wide. During the day it’s just cobbled surface. When trucks come from across Europe as part of their loans programme, the lift rises out of the ground and the truck drives in: it’s the biggest vehicle you can get on an English road. Then it drops down, and a big lid disengages itself and stays at ground level, so the only thing you can see in the landscape is just a tiny pair of metal strips. It can go three storeys below ground, and then it’s unpacked into the special drying areas, making sure that nothing’s got in. The packing and unpackaging must be done in special conditions.

HJ That’s absolutely extraordinary: it’s the side that, as a punter or a critic, you have no idea about at all. Presumably it’s raised the bar on what museums must consider now?

GS It’s not just about the display: it’s also the care, the conservation and the protection of the colle tion. Some of these facilities now have tours to see this private world.

HJ That idea of mass trespass extends to the Macallan distillery you designed, as well, doesn’t it?

GS I suppose it stems from the first project by Richard [Rogers] and Norman Foster: Reliance Controls. It was very famous in its time: it didn’t separate blue-collar and white-collar workers. It voided the front-of-house administrative centre concealing a shed behind. Reliance Controls created one enclosure where everything is democratic, and within one building. At the distillery, we were asked for a separate visitor centre twenty metres away from the main distillery and tank farm. So it was three components. We placed everything below ground and the visitor experience became part of the distillery. The idea is that it’s immersive, seeing the process, not just a branded story.

HJ Do you think architectural space has changed the kind of art that gets made? Those big, post-industrial spaces necessitate a certain scale of art-making that then needs bigger conservation departments and bigger archives. If you’re a collector, you suddenly need to have bigger private display rooms: suddenly everything is scaling up massively.

GS The big space, as you say, probably encourages the scale. It is interesting that pieces command the space of the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. It dwarfs everything. There was that beautiful Olafur Eliasson sunset many years ago, and the other one that worked was Bruce Nauman. He used sound: whispers and noises as you moved through the hall. That was fascinating, because the big space emphasised the spooky loneliness. Sculpture can be big relative to the scale it’s in. I saw the Schinkel house near Berlin as a student. The experience was both a domestic room in scale containing civic-sized statues. It is powerful and claustrophobic.

HJ I asked you earlier if you’d ever designed an exhibition. It sounds like you’d quite like to.

GS I do not feel qualified for this as exhibitions are not always read in clean white space, which is why I like Pompidou. It’s an open gallery. You can step into intimate spaces and see artworks but always returning to views of Paris. One is always able to stop, pause, fight for breath, and choose whether you wish to continue.