Spectacular Spaces I: London’s Top 5

Selecting only five spectacular spaces in London was not easy. It’s surely tempting to be lured towards London’s ecclesiastic masterpieces, as mesmerising as they are, however, the buildings in this piece needed to be secular, internal, accessible, naturally lit and of their time. But above all, they needed to be spectacular, give you that feeling of achievement, and extend the great vocabulary of space.

Great Court British Museum

There are few periods in history that have left a bigger mark on our country’s architecture than of the Millennium, creating a great variety of projects now in their late teens and early twenties. On the principle of ‘lets try and get hold of some of that dosh’ so many projects were conceived, which few realised they wanted and even fewer thought they would get. But the Great Court at the British Museum is surely an example of an extraordinarily well conceived project brilliantly executed.

When in 1997 the museum’s library was relocated to the new British Library the opportunity arose to reconsider the whole courtyard space around the Reading Room with a view to improving circulation, revealing hidden spaces, revitalising old space and creating entirely new space. An international architectural competition was launched and from 130 entries the design by Norman Foster was selected. Supported by grants of £30 million from the Millennium Commission and £15.75 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund the £100 million project was opened in 2000.

Increasing the museum area by 40 per cent is the two-acre Great Court which creates one of the most sensational entrance lobbies in the world. Surely appreciated by the thousands of visitors who each year pass more freely around the ground floor to see the world’s cultural artefacts displayed sometimes controversially with such entitlement, artistry and erudition.

The project also created new lecture theatres, seminar rooms, studios and restaurant space, but the crowning achievement is the glass and steel roof, an ingenious and elegant combination of structure and fenestration that creates such a memorable experience. Or as The Times put it in a more effusive style, ‘The great court is spellbinding enough to detain all who wonder there. Walking in from the entrance hall is like entering a magical realm, where everything seduces us with a radiant apprehension of light’s transfiguring power’….well it must be something like that.


Great Hall Westminster

This great example of London’s architecture has been a part of our parliamentary and democratic history since the 11th Century when in 1097 William II felt the need to impress the nation. But it contains a tantalising mystery…

The current spectacular hammer-beam roof was commissioned in 1393 by Richard II and was at the time the largest medieval timber roof in Northern Europe. The mystery being, if carpenters were unable to create roofs significantly wider than the length of available timber until 13th or 14th century, how was this 20.7 metre wide space originally covered? Recent archaeological investigations have found no evidence of intermediate columns.

Denuded of its original furniture and ritual functions, the space contained the King’s table. A symbol of royal power for more than 300 years and 17 monarchs, from this table Henry V, Richard III, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I took possession of their kingdom and were acclaimed by the Lords before their coronation across the road in Westminster Abbey. In this space monarchs were presented with their crown and sceptre, great coronation banquets were hosted, and the early forms of English law were laid down. It was also the setting for momentous political events such as the trials of Thomas More, Charles I and the Gunpowder Plotters.

One of the surprising things about this spectacular space is that anyone can just walk in and take a look and, depending on queues, even go on to watch debates in the Lords, the Commons and any of the select committees that are sitting. But I would hazard a guess that most people pass through the Great Hall without a thought for either its structural mystery or for the momentous events of state it witnessed.


St Pancras Station Train Shed

When completed 150 years ago, Barlow’s 73 x 213 metre train shed was the world’s largest single span roof structure and the design would influence generations of engineering solutions including Grand Central Station. Despite abutting unconvincingly Scott’s hotel and sporting an apologetic gothic arch this breath-taking roof structure now encloses the Eurostar international terminal and for many visitors is their first sight of London.

The ground level entrance, some 4.5 metres below the train tracks, was originally used to distribute goods in and out of the station and from where they would be raised to and lowered from track level above. In fact, the spacing of the track level support columns was designed around the dimensions of a beer barrel, three trainloads daily being transported from Burton-on-Trent to quench London’s thirst.

The track level was set to enable trains to cross the Regents Canal resulting in the steep access ramp shoehorned into the station forecourt on Euston Road. To minimise the access ramp length, Barlow lowered the tracks by about 1.0 metre from the level they crossed the canal to the station buffers. But to avoid buffer contact Train drivers needed to remember to extend normal breaking distances and very occasionally they forgot.


Painted Hall Greenwich

Located at the heart of one of Europe’s most spectacular set piece baroque masterplans, Wren and Hawksmoor’s Royal Hospital at Greenwich was originally intended to be the new royal palace for Charles II but, like the Chelsea Hospital and Louis XIV’s Hôtel des Invalides, it became a home for men invalided out of the armed forcesGreenwich, with its maritime significance, became a hospital established at Queen Mary’s instigation for naval pensioners and the Painted Hall was their dining room. But its spectacular design soon resulted in its function widening to incorporate ceremonial events such as the href=”https://www.ornc.org/nelsons-lying-in-state-in-the-painted-hall#clS14Jk01F8aEBd6.97″>lying-in-state of Lord Nelson after Trafalgar.

Paid at a rate of £1 per square yard for the walls and £3 per square yard for the ceilings Thornhill’s paintings narrate the Vestibule, the Lower Hall, the Upper Hall wall and ceiling surfaces with bold tales of good William and Mary triumphing over Britain’s evil adversaries. Peace and Liberty is seen to conquer Tyranny amidst the nautical trappings of a truculent maritime nation. The hall was finally completed in 1727 but considered too elaborate for dining use by the pensioners who were consigned to the under croft. The last pensioners left in 1869 when it became the Royal Naval College and until 1924 the hall also housed the first National Gallery of naval art displaying 300 easel painting by the likes of Turner and Reynolds. The last naval dinner was served there in 1997.

Currently, Thornhill’s paintings are being restored and the Painted Hall is due to reopen in 2019. Special tours to see the ceilings in their final stage of restoration can be booked by contacting the Painted Hall project.


Stockwell Bus Garage

In 1952, as trams were being phased out and steel was in short supply, Stockwell bus station was opened to house 200 buses and at the time was Europe’s largest unsupported roof structure. 10 concrete tapering arched ribs span 59 metres, 14 metres less than St Pancras, to create one of the finest examples of mid-century modern architecture.

Structurally the arched ribs and their columns form rigid frames, pin-jointed below ground level with the arches tapering from 3.2m haunches to 2.1m crowns. Each frame was cast in-situ in four stages using prefabricated formwork. The spectacular natural lighting is achieved by 42.7m glazed roof lights spanning 4.3m between ribs with integrated ventilation louvres.

At a talk at the RA in 2011, Will Self shared his enthusiasm for the building likening it to a modern-day agora. Not simply a meeting place for buses, but with its generous spans and natural light, an appropriate release for those confined to a day in a cabin behind the wheel of a London bus. Following on from the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain, Stockwell Bus Garage appeared when energies were focused on designing better spaces for the makers of a post-war Britain.

As Self succinctly put it, in an era of signature architecture it is good to find buildings that comprise more than just a signature, and in the case of Stockwell Bus Garage we find a fabulous social essay in space making.

Interested in design and architecture? We’ve got plenty more where that came from. Visit our blog for more fantastic design-related articles.

The writer would like to acknowledge and thank the British Museum, Network Rail and the BBC for the images of the Great Court, St Pancras Station and Westminster Great Hall, Karl Monaghan for the Painted Hall at Greenwich and David Iliff for the interior of Stockwell Bus Garage License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

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