The new Museum has fitted inside the church and churchyard, creating modern spaces without touching the old walls or disturbing ancient burials.
In the early 1970s St Mary’s was left a ruin, with its bells, altar rails and furniture re-used in churches thriving elsewhere. The first volunteers loving restored what survived of the old structure, and planted a garden in the churchyard.
However, it continued to be a bare shell, with a floor of wood and earth, and no heating, lighting, or drainage of its own. It was not possible to display works of art or precious artifacts as these require secure spaces, and protection from light and changes in the environment.
In 2008 Dow Jones Architects were winners of a competition for young architects to design a new gallery for temporary exhibitions; in 2015 – 17 the Museum closed again for a comprehensive restoration and reconstruction. You can now visit every chapel and tomb, as offices and stores have been relocated to a yard between the church and its neighbour, Lambeth Palace.
The new structure has been built using a prefabricated timber technology pioneered in Switzerland, which stands up by itself, so does not require digging foundations, or fixings into the old walls. It has also been designed to let as much natural light in as is possible, creating an air of calm which continues into the extension. We can now display the collection of garden history in addition to exhibitions, and have a gallery in which treasures of Tradescant’s Ark can be seen.
The extension has two pavilions for learning, and a café. Learning – whether school-children, or older people – is a core purpose of a Museum in a city where the majority of our neighbours do not have gardens of their own. One pavilion has been designed to fit a class of teenagers studying plants with microscopes; a smaller studio is for cooking, and art. The glazed link between the Museum and the café will, over time, fill up with plants to supply over 50 schools a year. The café which once occupied an aisle of the old church now opens on to the road. This extension has been built to be light enough to sit on a shallow concrete raft, and is clad with bronze, which over time will variegate in a pattern which echoes the bark of the plane trees.
An architect’s challenge is to solve the practical requirements of a client within the restrictions of budget, site, and in this case statutory protections of church, tombs, burials, trees, and views of Lambeth Palace. On top of this the architect must create a sense of place and atmosphere and Dow Jones have aspired to make a calm oasis which is part of the city but, also, a momentary escape.
To read an interview with the architects and look at their drawings please download our 2017 Journal