Why the new Design Museum excites & disappoints at the same time
What better way to start the New Year than to go and visit the most talked about museum in London, one that has opened just almost 2 months ago?
I've read articles and seen so many pictures of this stunning new building that I just had to go and check it out for myself. All this big hype around it made me so excited that I just had to go experience the building and, of course, its interior atmosphere.
First things first, let's get some details about it. The new Design Museum was relocated from its former home (down by the lovely Thames river) to its new location of 10,000 sqm - the former Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington (in Holland Park). The whole process cost was £83 million and it was designed by Architectural Designer John Pawson and Dutch Architecture Firm OMA. The new building has 2 lower ground floors, a ground floor and 2 upper levels. The stars of this museum are clearly its interior atrium and the stunning hyperbolic paraboloid roof. Have a look here for more images and the floor plans of the building.
Also, you should grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea before you start, because (as I always do when I go sight-seeing), there are a lot of pictures in this post! We might be here a while.
So, just before I entered its threshold, I said to myself "don't analyse this from an architectural point of view, just try to enjoy it as anybody would - like a child even - turn your brain of a while". And I stepped right in.
FIRST THOUGHT: OH MY GOD, LOOK AT THAT ROOF, AND THIS ATRIUM, AND THOSE LIGHTS AND THE WOOD AND THE STAIRS!!!!!
I was like a little kid, discovering something bigger and greater than myself. My heart was racing with excitement. I stopped right after my 3rd step, looking up, my eyes running from place to place. What to look at first? Oh my, the roof, but no, wait, look at those lights and that beautiful warm oak panels. What a visual joy. I'm on a visual hunt for details - how exciting! For all purposes, I was a kid again, right about time when I decided to be an architect. It reminded me of that feeling, of why I wanted to go into this profession in the first place.
Ok but first thing first, I had to find the cloakroom to leave my coat (so I can have more room to start taking pictures like a maniac), but it was nowhere in sight. "Hmm that is not a good sign", I thought to myself. But where could it be? Where is everybody leaving their coats? After a bit of search, I saw a sign that directed me to the lower ground floor.
After I got there, I was greeted by the face in this picture and by an empty hallway, full of plain walls. Ok, but where is the cloak room? After a little wandering around, I've finally found it - next to the restrooms, but it wasn't at all what I've expected. There was no cloakroom, just a space full of lockers (similar to the ones you find at your fitness/local gym). Luckily for me, there was a single key in locker 16 (out of 60 or 70 I think). Left my coat, took my camera out and got ready to begin my journey.
But what happens to other people that come in and find no empty lockers to leave their coats in? They'll have to carry them with them around the museum. That's not good, a museum should always have this option available for visitors. What if there are more than 60-70 visitors at the same time in the museum? I reminded myself that I shouldn't start thinking like an architect, that I am here to simply enjoy myself. But it was too odd and it kind of bugged me a bit. Either way, it was time to leave that aside (for the moment) and start discovering the new museum.
THE MUSEUM IS A WONDERFUL MIXTURE OF CONCRETE, OAK, GLASS, MARBLE, TERRAZZO AND LIGHT.
The museum has an amazing interior atmosphere. It exhumes a feeling of calmness, warmth and peace of mind. It reminded me of Japanese interiors, which are minimal, warm and amazingly "Zen" at the same them (you know, perfect for meditation). Once you find yourself again in the main hall (the Atrium), you find a sense of peace, away from the busy city. So, from this point of view, the architects and designers were spot on with this! That is why you will see all the pictures a bit darker. I wanted you to see first hand how the atmosphere of this place really is in reality.
The Atrium is clearly the secondary jewel of this building, even though it's the first thing you see, your first contact with the building. It guides the eyes around the space and leads to new discoveries at every corner. But the main jewel is, in all its splendour, the stunning roof. No matter where you are, from which corner you look at it, the roof changes and provides amazing views. It is, without a doubt a true engineering masterpiece. And I'm not saying this lightly because I had to learn a bit about this subject in Uni, so I can imagine what a huge work it must have been for the engineers - a huge open space with no columns to support its roof? Uhh, I really don't want to think about it.
What was truly a joy for me, was the attention to details that was clearly visible everywhere I turned. Everything was well thought out - where and how the light falls, what it highlights, the shadow gaps, how materials work together, how the pictures are hung without having wires so visible...you know, little details. But these "little details" to an architect like myself, are pure gold. It was like I was on a scavenger hunt. Uh, my heart was racing with excitement. I know that this might not be everybody's cup of tea, but it truly is for people like me! Of course, I have tonnes of pictures to make a post just about the details, but I don't want to bore you with them. Unless you want to of course, in which case let me know and I will do just that!
HOWEVER, THIS IS WHERE THE FUN STOPS.
Because the whole building was designed around the Atrium and its stunning roof, I was surprised to discover where some space compromises were made. I've done enough space planning in my life to know that, sometimes, one must surrender some things in favour of others, in this case - the space & circulation for the permanent exhibition (living on the top floor). I tried not to think about it, but the beauty of the building and its exhibits were not enough to distract me from some of its potential functional problems.
Personally, I had a major issue with the space on the top floor. I am ok with crowds, but I was thinking about people who are uncomfortable with them or a bit claustrophobic. I went on a Tuesday morning - afternoon when most people are at work. There weren't that many people visiting the permanent exhibition, yet the space felt uncomfortably crowded (like we were guided to see the objects through the back door of an alley). Every step I took, I had to carefully look around so that my bag wouldn't hit anyone or anything. I had to literally stop and make way for others to pass me way too many times.
THE SPACE FOR THE PERMANENT EXHIBITIONS FEELS AND IS TOO SMALL.
I wasn't happy with the entrance of the permanent exhibition. I understood why it was there, from an design point of view. But from a functional point of view, it was very uncomfortable. Allow me to explain. You begin by entering from a wide(-ish) space full of pictures and short stories about the history of design, and then you are guided through this funnel-like space, to the rest of the exhibition.
Besides trying to pass other people who were stopping to read the information or watch the movie on the screen, once you turn around the corner, you are immediately "greeted" by Zaha Hadid's architectural 3d models. While I am a fan of the beautiful 3d-printed models, the place for them was, let's say, counterproductive. I almost tripped and fell over them (because I wasn't looking beyond the person coming around the corner).
The space is just too small for visitors. Although the exhibition was great, the space feels like it's swept under the carpet. I cannot imagine how a huge intake of visitors will be able to move through this entrance easily. And the narrow space between the exhibits are just not fun to pass through, not to mention if you want to take the time and look at them.
It really felt a bit unsafe when I started to think about what would happen in case of a fire (my mind works weird like that). Even if you manage to get back to the Atrium, you are confronted with a different problem - there is only one staircase per floor. If you are on the other end, though luck, you have to go all the way around to get to it. Of course there are fire staircases for precisely this reason and you can access them, but only if you see them (and the signs). They are not that obvious. I mean, I missed them at first, and I'm an architect (I know to look for them). You cannot expect to know how people will react in a situation like this, be sure they will find the exits and walk out in a fashionable way to the stairs.
I truly get the reason behind placing the permanent exhibition on the top floor. It was done so that people can admire the roof in all it's splendour from all angles, but it felt so crowded (with so few people), that I could not get passed it. I would have placed it on the ground floor so that it's easily accessible for elder people and mums with kids in trolleys. This way, you would have people visible from outside, thus attracting more people in. Of course, give them a reason to get up all the way to the second floor and see the roof (if that is the main reason for the design of the building). I agree that the temporary exhibitions are placed at ground floor so that they'll have access and an easy way to move the exhibits in and out. But there are also items on the second floor for the permanent exhibition. Which means they brought them in one way or the other. So, that is not good enough reason.
The museum in its entirety is truly beautiful and the roof is absolutely stunning. It is worth coming just to see & experience that. But overall, for me personally, function tops looks. I wish I could end this post on a happier note, but my training as an architect just wouldn't let me not say anything. I will risk any backlash it might bring, but I think you have a right to know what to expect if you do go and visit the permanent exhibition. It's not all sugar and honey. There are some flaws there and that is really such a shame. To be fair, maybe there were so problems beforehand (that we don't know about) that made them design it like this. But if there is one thing I've learned in Uni is that there is always another way it can be done!
In all honesty, I did not manage to visit the temporary exhibitions (where I am sure there was more space due to no roof restrictions), but if you think about it, people will always come to visit the permanent one. And just as I saw there elder people and mums with trolleys, I can't help but think what a problem it would be in case of an emergency.
So this was my experience of the new Design Museum. Have you noticed the same things, or something else that I might have missed? What would be more important to you? To see the roof and exhibits or to be able to move around more easily? Let me know your thoughts, I would love to know your opinion, here or on our Facebook Page. Just pop in and say your mind, don't be shy!
Until next time!
All images that are credited as '©Detail Movement', are done by Raluca Vaduva for Detail Movement. All rights reserved. All pictures that are not my own, I credit them to the best of my knowledge & research, to their online sources. I do not claim ownership over them in any way.