Naval power: Falmouth’s new maritime museum responds to and is inspired by the muscular vernacular of nautical buildings
Peter Blundell Jones
Falmouth is one of the best natural harbours in Northern Europe and its deep water can accommodate the largest ships, so it used to be a convenient stopping off place on the Atlantic run, and it has always had a fishing fleet. It served as the centre for the British Empire’s mail service from the end of the seventeenth century, and its early strategic importance for naval purposes is reflected in the presence of two castles built by Henry VIII. Since its whole raison d’etre has revolved around its maritime past, it is certainly a legitimate place for a maritime museum, both to provide a focus for local pride and identity and to attract the visitors on which the Cornish economy now depends. Acting in tandem with Tate St Ives (AR July 1993), the Eden Centre (AR August 2001) and the Lost Gardens of Heligan, it may even draw more people into the peninisula.
The Fal estuary is long and wide, and Falmouth grew along its western side in a straggling way, curving round into docks at the southern end where a headland projects to narrow the mouth. The town centre is some way up, and the critical area of derelict land next to the docks had been reassigned to housing. The style was pseudo-vernacular, but instead of cosy old-fashioned Cornish terraces along public streets, it offered flats in an aggressively gated condominium. Model boats displayed in windows and super-exotic vegetation from a landscaping firm proved no substitute for real local colour, and halfway through the development ran out of customers, by which time the town was having second thoughts. Instead of deteriorating into a lifeless suburb, the southern part of town needed to become more of a public focus, and it was thought that this could be helped by the intended museum. The way the site curves round to embrace the harbour with a view back across the town seemed to offer an ideal position.
Long & Kentish were appointed after an interview competition. They have developed a complex building in many parts that responds to the site a different way on each side. An early decision was made to break with the sea wall, both to change the site’s shape and to avoid sitting passively on its edge. Instead the building could straddle it, getting its feet in the water and feeling the tides. The key element here is the tower, without which the whole complex would now be unthinkable. From outside it brings the composition to a climax by providing a lighthouse-like landmark: on the inside it gives the best view of the town and out across the harbour. Equipped with instruments and telescopes, it is like a ship’s bridge or an airport control tower. You approach it by lift or an austere spiral staircase in a concrete drum: go down the other way and you reach an extraordinary underwater room. Here 5m high windows of 80mm laminated glass reveal the sea rising and falling through its tidal range, and you can observe marine life in the surprisingly clear blue-green water. The tower thus combines inside and out in air and water from the longest view to the shortest- from telescope to a shrimp in front of your nose.
Such playing up of the water side makes contrast all the stronger with the land side on the west, where the architects intend to make a small public square for social events. The idea is to enclose it by a series of cultural and commercial buildings including a cinema, in pitched roof linear sheds following local warehouse vernacular.
The main entrance sets up an axial relationship with a small local monument, and the facade of the museum will provide a backdrop for events, helped by hints from the pattern in the stone paving. Running from square to tower and visible from the town, the north side of the building is dominated by a great area of sloping roof that works better in reality than in elevation. It indicates the main exhibition hall within and dips to defer to the tower, while at larger scale it follows the line of the local topography. From close to, the roof is seen to step forward covering both the tidal pool and the public harbourside walk that skirts the building’s entire north and east sides. Under the roof’s upper reaches are great wooden shutters that open into the exhibition hall, so that in summer the sea air can waft through and sounds of the harbour can be heard. In the east face the tower is balanced with a double gable on the corner next to the housing, and between the two is an open area of balcony with windows to th e main exhibition hall. Least important is the south elevation, which faces the housing and accommodates the dark, outwardly lifeless part of the museum. With its conventional pitched roof and timber siding, it mimics a warehouse. Plans to front it with a lower and similarly linear service building across an alleyway would have helped the transition of scale, but fell victim to budget cuts.
Inside, the building divides into two long halls, with groups of smaller facilities gathered around each end. The entrance doors face lift and admission counter, with the obligatory shop tucked behind to left. Three destinations are offered: right to the dark hall, direct left to the Cornwall Galleries in the corner–a kind of museum within the museum — and right at the end of the counter to enter the main hall. The whole plan is tapered because of the shape of the site, and this taper is absorbed by the main hall, making it larger towards the entrance. The space is high and well daylit, housing boats slung at various levels. It is partnered by the long thin dark hall, which is dark in accordance with the current mania for audio-visual displays: a series of giant TV screens showing short films associated with the boats exhibited.
Dividing dark and light halls but seen only from the main hall is a huge curved wall panelled in light-coloured wood veneer. It is set on the diagonal and lit by a wide rooflight. This forms the backdrop for the display, and seems appropriately to suggest the side of a great hull. Both main hall and the dark hall are traversed by long ramps, in the main gallery pausing at the east end before returning full-length to the top level. These main routes work well, the axis of the first ramp picking up a harbour view through windows at the end. Where the ramp returns to the second floor above the entrance is the cafe, enjoying views both to the hall and across the harbour. Further round, over the entrance to the dark hall, is a well appointed lecture hall. Other facilities, including library, workshop and schoolroom are added around the periphery, referring back in different ways to the main hail, and at ground floor north is a model boating pool with artificial wind where young visitors can try their hands at sett ing sail.
Inevitably the main construction is of concrete, the harbour edge involving complicated ground works. Roof structures are of steel and visible surfaces in traditional slate. As in most contemporary well-insulated buildings, much of what you see is cladding–predominantly green oak, though with frames and balustrades in iroko. The timber cladding reflects not only the traditional material of boats but also the local vernacular of sheds and warehouses, and it will weather down to silver-grey in the sea air. The architects have managed to produce quite a lively variety of effects by varying the direction and spacing of the timbers, and allowing glimpses between them in places. The exhibits include many different kinds of boat including prototypes and race-winners, which are made visible from different heights and angles. There are the usual panel displays and model boats in glass cases. A construction gallery shows half-built boats and informative structural sections, and activities in the adjacent workshop can be watched. Links to the outside world and harbour are planned, and the possibility is envisaged of temporary exhibitions in large visiting boats. I was surprised, however, to find no large floating exhibits in the harbour — tugs, steamboats, superannuated submarines — but perhaps these will be offered now that the institution is established. In these days of media bombardment and easy distribution of superficial information, what really counts on a real-life bodily visit to a museum of this kind is not the transferable make-believe of panel displays and videos, but direct confrontation with the real objects in the real place. Ships and boats are impressive enough without fancy labels, and Long & Kentish have found enough in the context to make the building really belong. The boat-builders in the workshop will help to animate the museum, but more life will be needed, so it is essential that the intended square linking the museum with the town be completed and allowed to develop a life of its own. PETER BLUNDELL JONES
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All photographs by Peter Durant/arcblue.com except no 2 which is by Dennis Gilbert/VIEW
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