The New Garden Museum

The Garden Museum in London has re-opened—and rebranded—after a short and surprisingly affordable modern makeover by the talented local firm Dow Jones Architects. I had the pleasure of sitting down with the museum director, Christoper Woodward, only a few days after the construction dust had cleared. The museum, housed in St. Mary at Lambeth, an old church due south of the London Eye and separated from the River Thames by only one road and a pedestrian walkway, is stunning—even more so when the sun has set and there are autumn leaves on the gravestones outside, as was the case when my wife and I visited.

Woodward, author of the 2002 book In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature, became director of the museum in September 2006, bringing an adventurous intellect and healthy reserves of energy to the role. When he announced that the museum, then called the Museum of Garden History, would not only be renamed but renovated, fitted out with a climate-controlled indoor exhibition space, it was clear that the institution would be raising its profile not only within the world of London museums but worldwide.

Dow Jones Architects, Archipelago, Adam Khan, Ullmayer Sylvester, Sarah Hare, and AOC all submitted inspired designs—but Dow Jones walked away the winners, unanimously chosen for the commission.

"The competition brief asked for a new gallery space," Dow Jones explain in their ensuing project documentation, "where temporary exhibitions could be housed in secure and environmentally-controlled conditions. (...) Our idea was to create a belvedere within the existing building. This houses the new galleries and provides a raised ground from which a new perspective of the existing building is attained." This also freed up valuable ground floor space for events and lectures.

Their solution—essentially the vertical subdivision of the church interior into an enclosed exhibition space and an open walkway—was also well-executed, assembled from prefab wooden panels called Eurban: "Being pre-fabricated and made of large panels it is also very quick to build with. The museum was closed for only 12 weeks whilst the work took place, and of this time the structure took three weeks to assemble." The architects also point out that the timber is "very environmentally friendly," even "carbon negative." "This building has removed 200 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere," they point out.

The structure fits into the existing church like an unexpected modernist puzzle box. The colors of the wood match very well with the stone walls, camouflaging the just-arrived nature of the construction. The museum had only been open again for five days when I stopped by, and it already looked as if Dow Jones' work had settled into place.

Building Design's Ellis Woodman has visited the museum, as well, writing that the architects have "charged the central nave" of the 14th-century church with a "rather theatrical sense of enclosure."

Woodward, visibly and justifiably impressed by the results, took my wife and I on a brief after-hours tour of the space, including a small, elevated classroom and the museum's new administrative offices. We talked about guerrilla gardening, architectural ruins in North America, and even the small vegetable gardens that Woodward and his coworkers had begun to cultivate out back. All in all, a wonderful visit—and a fantastic beginning to the Garden Museum in this new phase of its existence.


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