BDP / National Army Museum, London

Now with a major overhaul re-ordering the interior (exhibition design by Event) and adding a welcoming new frontage, BDP has the museum proudly on parade...


Project Info

Client: National Army Museum

Architect: BDP

Exhibition designer: Event

Size: 10,000 sq m

Duration: Seven years

Budget: £23.75m


Words by Emily Martin

The spring saw a significant museum open in London and joining the ranks of the capital’s list of high-profile establishments. The National Army Museum first opened in the Seventies, to a design by William Holford & Partners, but now a major overhaul by architecture practice BDP and exhibition designer Event has provided visitors with a 21st-century museum experience thanks to a significant ‘re-order’ of the original brutalist building. Now a very different building stands on its site neighbouring the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

Looking down to the cafe space. Accoustic measures hiding services keep a clean and crips aesthetic. Courtesy of the National Army Museum.
Looking down to the cafe space. Accoustic measures hiding services keep a clean and crips aesthetic. Courtesy of the National Army Museum. Photographer Paul Raftery.

For many people, the National Army Museum was simply unheard of. Others complained of poor access, or just not being able to find it, despite it standing right next to the Royal Hospital, home of some of Chelsea’s notable residents, the Chelsea Pensioners. But it’s hard to imagine the original off-putting and difficult building, with obscured windows and accompanying lay-by, when viewing the it now. It draws you in off the street through trees and planting and a glazed facade, enabling views into the building from street level.

The street view of the new museum, with its more welcoming entrance and extension, next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Courtesy of the National Army Museum.
The street view of the new museum, with its more welcoming entrance and extension, next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Courtesy of the National Army Museum.

‘This is the new National Army Museum, and what it represents is openness,’ says David Artis, a project architect at BDP for the National Army Museum. A generous foyer, which includes an 500 sq m extension, also features ample amounts of glazing, framing some of the neighbouring Royal Hospital Chelsea’s architectural details. Public facilities, such as the cafe, have also been brought to the front of the building where they can benefit from natural light and contribute to the life of the street. But the major internal change is the introduction of a new central atrium, with a feature grand-scale roof light fitted with light diffusing glass providing natural lighting.

‘Internally the building was cramped and disorientating, with a series of stairs and ramps connecting the gallery spaces,’ says Artis, picturing an overall sense of darkness due to the lack of natural light. ‘But by keeping the expression of the concrete frame, we have opened up the internal space so that visitors aren’t fatigued by going through black box after black box.’

The street view of the new museum, with its more welcoming entrance and extension, next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Courtesy of the National Army Museum.
The street view of the new museum, with its more welcoming entrance and extension, next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Courtesy of the National Army Museum.

The challenge for BDP has been to develop a design that provides a dramatic enhancement of the museum experience for visitors, but which is also sympathetic to the local context in both character and scale.

Opening up the centre of the museum also provided several challenges for the design team, the largest being structural. The creation of the atrium was a major intervention into the existing concrete structure, necessitating the removal of loadbearing elements that previously provided stability to the building.

Structural stairs play a key part in the building’s re-ordering, with each level staggered. Courtesy of the National Army Museum.
Structural stairs play a key part in the building’s re-ordering, with each level staggered. Courtesy of the National Army Museum. Photographer Paul Raftery.

BDP’s structural engineers incorporated cantilevered floor structures that work in conjunction with ‘structural’ stairs, to deliver what has become a well-engineered space, while the design enabled front to back circulation, allowing spaces to become connected.

‘Connecting all the galleries to a cafe is not what you commonly do,’ says Artis. With the new staggered half-level floors, and structural elements also housing service, ‘slotted panels [to cover the services] offer acoustic soundproofing while also keeping a clean visual appearance. Often by making something look very simple is in fact not simple to do at all’.

BDP has delivered a comfortable space for often difficult conversations about war. Courtsey of National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Richard Lea-Hair
BDP has delivered a comfortable space for often difficult conversations about war. Courtsey of National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Richard Lea-Hair

The building interiors have been designed on a 21:33 ratio grid system to help create a visual order, which also ties in with of the museum’s military neatness. Artis says that using this numeric system enabled the design team to choose where to ‘interrupt’ the scheme with curves to allow for circulation, as seen on the ground level by the stairs taking people from the entrance to the rest of the building.

The lower level of the atrium provides a series of spaces that will support a variety of public, school and corporate events. Additionally there is the Templar Study Centre, which provides a more academic, research-focused space where visitors can access information from the museum’s archive.

In the new permanent thematic galleries – Soldier, Army, Battle, Society, Insight – more than 2,500 objects are on display, two thirds for the first time, with the temporary exhibition space opening with War Paint: Brushes with Conflict, displaying some 130 paintings and objects.

Curves interrupt the space to help with flow, while accoustic measures aid noise reduction and naetly conceal services. Courtsey of National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Paul Raftery
Curves interrupt the space to help with flow, while accoustic measures aid noise reduction and naetly conceal services. Courtsey of National Army Museum 2017. Photographer Paul Raftery

‘The main gallery spaces are still essentially black boxes, sited to the rear of the building,’ says Artis. ‘We needed to control the amount lux when it came to natural-light levels affecting light-sensitive artefacts’.

BDP’s lighting team delivered a scheme that works across the grid system, which also helps to conceal the services. A fully flexible and programmable lighting scheme creates a single, cohesive look to the museum while also protecting light-sensitive displays.

BDP’s new design scheme has the needed pull-power to help aid the National Army Museum’s annual visitor target of more than 400,000 people a year. It’s a comfortable and positive space for having open and often difficult conversations about war and history, says the museum.

‘The creative adaptation of this major UK museum presents a wonderful opportunity to re-order the building, re-present the collections and communicate to a wider audience the significance of the Army story, concludes BDP director Tim Leach.

Key Suppliers

Acoustic panels and partitions
Accordial
topakustik

Furniture and upholstery
Modus
Dare Studio
Ton
Kvadrat
Cassina

Lighting
Tom Dixon
Flos

Stone and tiles
Domus
Quiligotti





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