BD Reviews: Interiors
Drawing Board: Blythe House, London, by Haworth Tompkins
Architects Jim Reed and Beatie Blakemore of Haworth Tompkins talk about their restoration of a former Post Office building to create a textiles and fashion study centre for the V and A
Blythe House is a turn-of-the-20th-century building near Olympia designed by Henry Tanner. Originally the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank, the building accommodated as many as 5,000 staff at its peak, but since the 1980s has been used as storage for the Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum and Science Museum.
Our task was to create a dedicated study centre and conservation facilities for the V and A’s world-class textiles and fashion collection, which will be stored together in a single location for the first time. This forms part of the museum’s ambitious FuturePlan programme and will release space for galleries and public areas in South Kensington.
The work at Blythe House will include restoration of the original main entrance on the north facade, providing an accessible new entrance for the visitors.
The exterior of the grade II listed, red brick building is characterised by a richly ornamented, formal facade in the Edwardian baroque style, while the interior spaces are generously proportioned but more plain and functional in their material language. Glazed bricks line the inside walls and iron columns support the 100m-long stretches of storage. In places, the building can appear a little unloved but it has character in abundance.
The project takes in the ground floor entrance and floors two, three, and four of the north range and east link block. The key architectural challenge has been knowing how and where to put the main interventions. It’s a rich canvas on which to work and builds on much of the thinking in our recent work at the London Library.
We’re looking to retain and celebrate the inherent qualities of the existing fabric, revealing original finishes where they have been concealed and carefully inserting new furniture and lighting. Our material palette uses many natural materials in their original form — patinated steel, dark-stained ash, and brass to contrast with the lighter coloured brickwork.
In reopening the main entrance we’re hinting at the nature of the project by applying a pattern to the entrance path derived from a CFA Voysey-designed textile in the V and A collection. In the reception, we are exposing original finishes such as glazed bricks and quarry tiles, installing a new metal-clad platform lift just inside the entrance, and introducing new glazed cabinets to display a collection of objects that belonged to Eduardo Paolozzi and are now stored at Blythe House.
Reorganising the storage on the second and third floors to accommodate the vast collection of 100,000 textiles — ranging from huge tapestries to tiny pieces of lace — has been challenging. New structural raised floors will be provided to distribute the load of the new steel and aluminium containers, which are typically 5m long, 3m high and up to 1,600mm deep. Internal fittings such as tapestry supports, hanging rails and drawers are configured to the suit the diverse nature of the collection stored. A consistent language of black metal cladding and gold passivate steel handles is used throughout the storage areas.
We want to communicate the size of the collection through the sheer scale of the compressed storage installation. Visitors will have the sense of being taken through backstage areas of the building towards more specifically designed spaces like the study centre on the third floor.
We are also refurbishing conservation studios on the fourth floor of the east link block, creating flexible workspaces and introducing new glazed screens to maximise views and connectivity.
We’ve just started on site and expect to be finished in spring 2013.
The study room
The study room will be the key space in the centre, which visitors enter after passing through the storage area.
It will be clearly defined, bound by two grand fixed cabinets created using doors reclaimed from the South Kensington Museum. These will form a very deep element — a portal — to pass through into the 4m-high study area, which will have ash furniture designed by Haworth Tompkins, stained so that the grain is still visible.
Here, visitors can study objects from the collection under supervision. The back wall will be lined with freestanding ash bookcases that allow views to the original glazed brick wall behind — where possible, the architects are keen not to touch the original walls more than necessary.
The encasement on the steel beams will be stripped back to reveal the original connections. New power and IT servicing will be encased in a gold-finish ceiling grid mounted on slender columns and will form a sculptural element within the space, further distinguishing it from the adjacent storage areas.
A sliding, timber-framed glass partition will open up off the main study space to reveal a seminar room for up to 15 people sited in a large bay.
Architect Haworth Tompkins, Structural engineer Alan Baxter and Associates, Services engineer Zisman Bowyer and Partners, Lighting design DHA Design, QS Baker Mallett, Project management Bovis Lend Lease Consulting, Main contractor Fairhurst Ward Abbotts, Storage contractor Rackline
Pamela Buxton was speaking to Haworth Tompkins associate Jim Reed and project architect Beatie Blakemore.