The project has involved the creation of a new public space alongside the old Smithery.Source: James Brittain
Van Heyningen & Haward’s scheme provides an elegant environment for the presentation of a fine collection of ships’ models
In June 1667 the Dutch navy took advantage of a lull in peace talks during the Second Anglo-Dutch War to make a bold and daring attack on England’s naval heart, Chatham Dockyard. The Raid on the Medway saw the Dutch fleet sail past Gravesend to a virtually undefended shipyard upriver. The English were caught by surprise and a total of 13 ships, including three of England’s four capital ships, were burnt. The Royal Charles, flagship of the English fleet, was captured and towed back to Amsterdam as bounty. Chatham Dockyard’s commissioner Peter Pett was vilified and, as commonly understood, made scapegoat for the disaster.
The most frequent of accusations against him was that he was cowardly in fleeing to London, taking with him the scale models of the King’s Fleet, while leaving the ships themselves behind to be sunk by the Dutch. In the ensuing court case Pett argued that the ships’ models were the more valuable and, in an age when models rather than drawings were a ship’s primary design tool, his logic is certainly understandable. Almost 350 years later it is also something for which we can be very grateful as these and many other stunningly beautiful models are put on public display in No 1 Smithery at Chatham in the most recent cultural addition to the former shipyard.
After centuries of ship construction and maintenance in the service of the Royal Navy, from the building of HMS Victory to the refitting of nuclear submarines during the cold war, the Royal Dockyard at Chatham was finally closed in 1981 following a review by the Conservative government of the time into Britain’s shipbuilding and repair facilities. The Falklands War caused a brief respite until 1984, but it has since been gradually reinventing itself as a mixed-use site with residential and commercial uses away from the river and cultural uses adjacent.
Over the time the historic dockyard had developed along the water’s edge, with each expansion of the shipbuilding process met with a move to a larger neighbouring site. This pattern of development, though appropriate to changing constructional requirements, has left the historic dockyard with an architectural legacy that until now has been rather scattered and unfocused for a heritage destination. The latest project by the Historic Dockyard Trust has finally addressed this problem, creating alongside the old Smithery a new public space that sits as centrepiece within the dockyard, with covered slips and the remarkable 346m-long ropery beyond to the north and south respectively.
The dockyard has been left with an architectural legacy that until now has been scattered and unfocused
The No 1 Smithery building was constructed in 1808 to provide metalworking facilities for the yard, producing items such as anchors and chains. Its gradual expansion during the 19th and 20th centuries saw the external courtyard around which it was originally focused eventually built in. The dockyard’s closure hastened the decline of the building fabric until the scheduled ancient monument and grade II* listed building was eventually put on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk register.
The task of the Historic Dockyard, an independent charitable trust, was at first therefore primarily one of finding an economically feasible way of preserving the existing buildings. The resultant project is a joint venture between the National Maritime Museum, Imperial War Museum and Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, which provides long-term secure storage for what is the world’s largest collection of ship models. In fact the new project is perhaps better understood as a sophisticated storeroom with a front of house open to the public than as a traditional museum or gallery.
The first phase of the project was to stabilise the existing structures; the decay has been halted and the existing buildings carefully repaired. Conservation decisions have been well judged throughout, with a satisfying quantity of wear and tear left to give witness to the hard work and industry that took place here.
New uses, such as the education rooms and temporary exhibition space, are in places accommodated within the existing building, but are largely housed in a series of new box-like structures that sit within the existing historic shell. These well-serviced boxes house the permanent stores and the collection galleries for public display. Inset, yet intimately close to the existing fabric, they challenge the existing buildings with juxtaposition: old against new, but also the rich texture and intricacy of the historic factory structure against the dumb box of the storeroom.
Clad in Sto render with largely blank elevations and minimal articulation, the new buildings read as a neutral counterpoint against the patina of the ironworks, the physical closeness of the two walling types heightening the tension. Undeniably dramatic in effect and with clear environmental benefits, it’s a strategy that is to my mind a little let down by the use of clumsily detailed off-the-shelf doors, but also one that, for better or worse, highlights the inaccessibility to the general public of the majority of the new facilities.
The new buildings read as a neutral counterpoint against the patina of the ironworks
The three store and gallery boxes are aligned so as to reconfigure the historic courtyard, a lost external space that now becomes an internalised hall, a space for education, family and performance activities. Van Heyningen & Haward has intelligently ignored the obvious and chosen not to enter the building directly by this space, passing into the courtyard either through or around the gallery space. The entrance is instead off the main square into an orientation hall sited in an existing building between the permanent galleries, temporary exhibition space and education.
The architect’s original vision was of a toplit space full of light, retaining much of the character of the existing building and located between neighbouring dark (and sealed) spaces. This has unfortunately been more than a little lost by the client’s insistence that the space house an introductory model. The subsequent environmental requirements have led to the elimination of the overhead natural lighting and the loss of the experience of passing between dark and light spaces.
It is perhaps a disappointment that only an architect would remember, for on entering the gallery spaces the displays really do amaze. While most of the 4,000 or so ship models are racked away in the permanent stores, available only to the Phd student or avid enthusiast, on general display are the highlights of the collections. The exhibition design by Land Design Studio neither intrudes nor infantilises the material, clearly and simply presenting free-standing models in cases together with wall-mounted canvases.
I was drawn to the cut-away timber model showing the Victorian vessel Cleopatra and the cargo she was specifically designed to carry back from Alexandria, the stone obelisk now known as Cleopatra’s Needle, around which her hull was constructed. Norman Wilkinson’s working models of wartime dazzle camouflage schemes for battleships give evidence to the remarkable moment in naval history when the avant-garde vorticists became employed at the forefront of military research. The precise stone model of the world’s first offshore stone lighthouse, the 1759 Eddystone Lighthouse, was built by the lighthouse keeper to while away his time between watches. Indeed the pleasure of the new facility is that, in contrast to many recent museums, both the quality of exhibit and their elegant display encourage us to take our time to enjoy the fascinating collection rather than rushing on to the café.
Architect Van Heyningen & Haward, Conservation architect Purcell Miller Tritton, Exhibition designer Land Design Studio, Structural engineer Price & Myers, M&E engineer, lighting and acoustics Max Fordham, Cost consultant Davis Langdon, Contract project manager Appleyards
Hugh Strange is an architect in private practice and project manager at the Hadspen Estate