Latitude/Longitude: 51.5194, -0.127043
The courtyard at the centre of the British Museum was one of London’s long-lost spaces. Originally an open garden, soon after its completion in the mid-nineteenth century it was filled by the round Reading Room and its associated bookstacks. Without this space the Museum was like a city without a park. This project is about its reinvention.
In terms of visitor numbers over five million annually – the British Museum is as popular as the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the absence of a centralised circulation system this popularity caused a critical level of congestion throughout the building and created a frustrating experience for the visitor. The departure of the British Library to St Pancras provided the opportunity to clear away the book stacks and to recapture the courtyard to give the building a new public focus. The Great Court is entered from the Museum’s principal level, and connects all the surrounding galleries. Within the space – the largest enclosed public space in Europe – there are information points, a bookshop and a cafe. At its heart is the magnificent space of the restored Reading Room, now an information centre and library of world cultures, which for the first time in its history is open to all. Broad staircases encircle the Reading Room and lead to a gallery for temporary exhibitions with a restaurant above. Below the level of the Court are the new Sainsbury African Galleries, an education centre, and facilities for schoolchildren.
The glazed canopy that makes all this possible is a fusion of state-of-the-art engineering and economy of form. Its unique geometry is designed to span the irregular gap between the drum of the Reading Room and the courtyard facades, and forms both the primary structure and the framing for the glazing, which is designed to maximise daylight and reduce solar gain. As a cultural square, the Court also resonates beyond the confines of the Museum, forming a new link in the pedestrian route from the British Library to Covent Garden and the river. To complement this civic artery, the Museum’s forecourt has been freed from cars and restored to form a new public space. Like the Great Court it is open to the public from first thing in the morning to early evening, creating a major amenity for London.
⇒ Architecture Guide to LONDON