Price & Myers was appointed via a design competition win with Stirling Prize-winning architects Witherford Watson Mann for a major refurbishment of the Courtauld Institute and Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House in London.
The project represents the most extensive renovation in the Grade I listed building’s 220-year history. Originally constructed on the site of a Tudor Palace, Somerset House has served many tenants over its two centuries. The development of the building’s interior has been largely ad-hoc to accommodate its various uses, resulting in an eccentric layout with over 100 different floor levels. Adding to the complexity of the structural works was a lack of accurate record-keeping of the historic alterations.
By rationalising floor levels, improving accessibility, removing partitions, and opening up volumes, the reimagining of the Courtauld better connects the gallery spaces with the education and administrative zones. The result is an expansive series of beautifully lit rooms that take the visitor on a linked journey past the Courtauld’s globally significant art collection and connects to their education facilities and administrative offices. Many historical elements, including several original cantilever stone staircases and painted plaster ceilings, have been protected and restored.
On a project of mind-boggling complexity, perhaps the greatest conundrum confronting the project team revolved around the redevelopment of the vaults, or vestibules, under the main entrance to Somerset House on the Strand. The vestibules sit directly under the vehicular access to the building from the Strand, and the brief required the removal of all load bearing walls below ground level. It was imperative that access was maintained - for vehicles, pedestrians and emergency services – throughout the construction works.
To facilitate that requirement, the sequencing of the works was astonishingly complex. It was further complicated by a façade of ornate stone and decorative plaster work that sits above the arches that span the driveway entrance. The tolerances for movement were tiny. Any movement of more than 4mm would have halted works. However, the design and planning were so thorough that only negligible movement occurred. The result is a series of moody underground vaults that greet the visitor as they make their way around the Institute galleries.
A new stone stair, known as the Gallery Stair, conveys visitors into the galleries. Witherford Watson Mann proposed a crafted steel and timber handrail to arch gracefully between the floors. The elegant, thin, exposed steel upright vanes are embedded in the stone risers and landings at seemingly impossibly narrow margins. The architect wanted the stair’s uprights to be as near to the edge of the stone as possible. This was one of the many areas where the proposed structural design was verified by load testing, ensuring the handrails look great, are safe, and fit for purpose.
From the convoluted original floorplan and the elegant lantern window, to the delicate plaster friezes and even the discovery of a Tudor palace latrine in the archaeology, this is a project that has kept the engineers, architects and contractors constantly exploring to find solutions to unusual challenges. The result has helped coalesce the client; created an elegant, unified gallery experience; and given this storied old building another chapter for its history.