Sunday, November 05, 2006

Power and taboo

click photo to enlarge
It's a brave architect who makes a major change to a national building that has a place in the hearts and minds of the public. But that is what Norman Foster did at the British Museum in London, and his achievement is magnificent.

In 1994 Foster won the competition to redevelop the famous circular Reading Room (1854-55) and its surrounding courtyards. Work began in 1998 and was completed in 2000. In collaboration with the engineers, Buro Happold, Foster threw a glazed roof over the courtyard, built a new perimeter wall round the Reading Room (that supports the new glazing), refurbished Smirke's Greek Revival elevations of 1823-47, and built a replica of the demolished south portico. The master-stroke of the glazed roof casts an even light over the airy courtyard. It recalls the Victorian glass arcade, but its structure - made of 3312 glass panels, each a different size due to the Reading Room being slightly off centre - would have defeated them, relying, as it does, on computer modelling. The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, as it is now called, is a public space in the heart of London that must be experienced.

My photograph shows the upper walls of the Reading Room with part of the glass roof and a portico. On a dull day the sun briefly broke through the clouds and, using a wide zoom lens, I was able to get a couple of shots using the shadows that are projected onto the walls. I included a banner advertising the exhibition "Power & Taboo" (showing artefacts connected with Polynesian religions) because it seemed to me that a British taboo of preserving, at virtually all costs, the structure and fabric of old buildings, had here been broken with powerful effect!
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen