MUMA raises a glass to the past at the V&A
The transformation of an existing lightwell is at the heart of MUMA’s restoration of the V&A’s Medieval & Renaissance galleries
To describe the reworking of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Medieval & Renaissance galleries as simply a refurbishment project belies the breadth and intricacy of this meticulously detailed and visionary scheme.
The scheme, acclaimed by the V&A as “the biggest project the museum has undertaken since the British Galleries opened in 2001”, has been designed by MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects). The nine-strong firm had previously created a new café for the museum, and has also undertaken schemes for the Newlyn Art Gallery and Penzance Gallery in Cornwall.
Its £30 million, 4,500sq m reconfiguration of the museum’s south-east quarter, where the original Aston Webb-designed galleries are located, has involved a fundamental rethink of the circulation routes and disabled access. The project has resulted in some major interventions, including the first new-build public space at the museum for more than 100 years.
The project could have been much smaller. When MUMA won the international competition in 2003, the V&A’s brief was to design new exhibition space for the Medieval & Renaissance collection, which was dispersed mainly in the galleries around the inner garden. But following a site visit and the discovery of redundant space within an existing lightwell, MUMA proposed a much more ambitious scheme, which the museum backed.
To connect the perimeter galleries to the rest of the museum, make them more legible and allow for wheelchair access, MUMA boldly proposed the removal of a grade I-listed marble staircase. It was replaced with a glass lift and structural in-situ concrete stair with very thin landings, to create a vertical “circulation hub”.
This intervention has created a daylit gallery incorporating a technically innovative £1.1 million monopitch glazed roof, engineered by Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners.
Partner Tim Macfarlane says in principle the roof structure is straightforward, comprising triple-laminated glass beams of varying depths of between 445mm and 555mm, spaced at approximately 750mm centres supporting insulated glass roof panels.
But it’s also something of a trailblazer and presented some big engineering challenges.
The new glazed roof now rises about 14m above the new gallery space, while 73 beams (three 15mm-thick sheets of toughened glass bonded together) fan out from the existing rounded building, extending upwards across to the high-level eaves of the surrounding buildings.
Since the distance between the rounded building and perimeter buildings varies, so does the pitch and length of the beams, forming an undulating surface, or “hypar” surface, with the roof varying in slope from 19 to 39 degrees.
The beams also range in length, from 5m to 9.5m, and it was the longer pieces that presented the first challenge. Glass sheets longer than 6m are difficult to procure and although a solution would be to bolt shorter sections of glass together, the architects didn’t want to see any visible connections.
A combination of finding a large enough autoclave to manufacture the longer sheets and laminating the beams using Dupont’s interlayer material, SentryGlas, provided the structural and visual solution. The interlayer is strong enough to bond overlapping sheets together without the need for mechanical joints.
“There are generally two approaches in glass design,” Macfarlane says. “There is the [Eva] Jiricna approach where every connection and detail is celebrated, or the MUMA approach where there are no visible metal connections.”
MUMA’s inspired approach has radically changed and improved both the layout and access to this part of the museum. The removal of all awkward and jarring changes in level has created a smooth experience.
Importantly, for the first time the project provides access to six levels of the museum between the perimeter galleries, Gallery 50 and the adjacent Ironwork gallery.
Central to these changes are the objects themselves — more than 20,000 — which, according to the V&A, form “one of the world’s most remarkable collections of treasures from the medieval and Renaissance periods, including the Becket Casket, Gothic altarpieces and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci”.
The project has resulted in the first new-build public space at the museum for more than 100 years
MUMA has also had to grapple with displaying some 1,800 objects in the 10 new galleries. These have ranged in size from the facade of Paul Pindar’s House — one of the few timber homes of around 1600 that survived the Great Fire of London — to a woollen Roman sock.
The galleries have been designed to provide an appropriate and sympathetic backdrop. In the new daylit gallery, for instance, a steel frame had to be designed and fitted into the north-east infill and south-east infill to hold the medieval Breton staircase and Pindar facade respectively.
Meanwhile, in the main galleries, MUMA and specialist German glass manufacturer Glasbau Hahn have designed exquisite glass display cases with no brackets, which allow the artefacts inside to be clearly seen.
When the new Medieval & Renaissance galleries open towards the end of November, visitors will surely be moved by the quiet elegance and meticulous detailing of the new spaces.
Glass beams and double-glazed panels
A key feature of the beams’ design is that, when looked at from the gallery floor, they appear to vanish into the brickwork at both ends.
In fact, the beams are housed in stainless-steel shoes formed in the masonry.
A full-scale mock-up of a section of the roof was made by Octatube, to see how the detail looked and to check that the unit was watertight. It also gave the design team the opportunity to see how the distinctive translucent beams connected to the double-glazed units.
The architects didn’t want to see any clunky connections, so Octatube developed a bespoke stainless-steel connection that allowed the insulated panels to be easily clamped, on site, to the beams and to each other. A continuous stainless- steel channel was bonded along the top of the beam and the movable connections fixed to the channel.
Mock-ups also proved to be invaluable in designing the double-glazed panels. A mock-up was made to show that the panel could be warped to the degree required but the seal of the unit would not fail.
Engineer Tim Macfarlane says he’s unaware of any other project in which a double-glazed unit is deflected by as much as 160mm. He regards it as a breakthrough that “pushes the boundaries”.
It was the corner radial sections of the roof, where the glass is no longer parallel and the panels are trapezoid, that presented a tough geometric challenge. Because the adjacent beams have different slopes, the panels needed to conform to the resulting warped surface. The cost of heat bending the glass would have been prohibitive since each panel has a different geometry, so cold bending the panel in situ was considered.
“A study of the most severely warped panel suggested that the 3m-long x 0.75m-wide panel would need to be twisted such that one of the corners was displaced vertically by 160mm relative to the other three,” says Macfarlane.
“At first glance the resulting curvature along the edge looked like it would exceed the industry standard for edge spacers in insulated panels. But following a simple experiment with a rectangular sheet of card, it appeared that the edge would be straighter than anticipated.”
Original print headline: Raising a glass to the past
Architect MUMA, ClientTrustees of the V&A, Historic building consultant Julian Harrap Architects,
Structural engineer Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners, Project manager Lend Lease Projects and March Consulting, Quantity surveyor Davis Langdon, Glazing sub-contractor Octatube, Main contractor Holloway White Allom
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