Exploring Sponge-Space

Homage to Sir John Soane's Museum in London

 

Text by Mathias Müller and Daniel Niggli
Published

 

The conclusion of the first phase of the adaptation work by Caruso St John Architects suggested paying another visit the architecture cabinet of Sir

John Soane. Bathed in a ʻlumière mysterieuseʼ this sequence of spaces still exerts a fascination on architects throughout the world.

 

Surprised by the pleasantly agreeable autumn weather in London we join a typically English queue shortly before ten in the morning. Outside the imposing

house with the street number 13 a colourfully mixed group, supervised by a friendly elderly gentleman, waits to be admitted to the Wunderkammer of

Sir John Soane, 1753–1837, architect of the Bank of England, student of Dance, senior and junior, contemporary and rival of the Adam Brothers, Robert

Smirke and James Wyatt. Behind the Portland stone façade one of the strangest architecture cabinets in the world awaits us: built over a period

of forty years across the plots of numbers 12, 13 and 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, fitted-out and then later altered, this building, both residence

and workplace, was also a laboratory for space and light at the scale of 1:1 and a museum, and also represents the legacy of

a brilliant architect.

Fig.: Imagined ruins of John Soane’s Bank of England, Joseph Michael Gandy, 1830

 

Fig.: Bank of England, Ground floor

 

This building has an eventful past. During his lifetime Soane disinherited his sons and left his house to the nation. After his death in

1837 Number 13 was run on the basis of a Private Act of Parliament as a museum, whose rooms, according to the founder’s intentions,

were never to be altered. Nevertheless, in the course of the following century and a half questionable alterations were made on several occasions, especially

to Number 12. Partly in response to the continuous increase in the number of visitors in recent years, a project under the motto

ʻopening up the Soaneʼ was initiated in 2008 on the basis of a conservation management plan. A series of smaller and larger interventions will

lead to a clear improvement to the entrance situation, better organisation of the visitors’ tours and will also increase the size of the exhibition

areas.

Fig.: Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1796, 1810, 1822, 1837, Ground floor

 

The completion of the first phase of the comprehensive renovation and adaptation works by Julian Harrap Architects and Caruso St John Architects offers a

welcome opportunity to visit this influential architecture monument once again. Whereas previously you entered and left the museum directly through Number 13 via a

small, long entrance hall where you also left coats, bags and umbrellas, you now leave these items in a new cloakroom inserted by Caruso

St John in Number 12 and then enter the museum in Number 13 in the way in which Sir John once received his guests.

Fig.: Exterior view

 

The entrance hall and the oval staircase behind it already offer an intimation of the spatial sophistication. Drawn by the depth of the building

we decide to enter what is perhaps the most famous room, the Breakfast Parlour. Inserted like hinge at the intersection of the front house,

which is several storeys high, and the courtyard ensemble at the rear, here axial relationships and diagonal views open up in all directions. A

large window opens onto the Monument Court which forms a spatial centre that, in a certain sense, binds all the different parts of Soane’s

sponge-like spatial construct. Two exits diagonally opposite each other lead on to the Soane collection or back to the Front Salon with the Dining

Room, Library and the wonderful Study in the connecting wing between the Monument Court and the Monk’s Yard and the museum area at the

rear. The kaleidoscopic impression created by the multitude of routes is further heightened by two typical characteristics of Soane’s architecture: the manner in which

the ceilings contain space and his obsessive use of mirrors of all kinds.

1 Entrance Hall

2 Oval Staircase

3 Monument Court

4 & 5 Dining Room & Library

6 Study, including the vista into monument court

6 Study

 

Incrustations

 

The Breakfast Parlour is spanned by a balloon-like saucer dome. It rests on small, tendon-like arches and is detached from the surrounding walls, so

that it seems more like a floating membrane than an architectural element. The subtle, hovering spatial impression created is further strengthened by the presentation

of the spatial layer between the dome and surrounding wall. Through this intermediate space and a central light opening, Soane introduces what he called

a ʻlumière mysterieuseʼ, that is to say indirect light that enters from above. Filtered through coloured panes of glass it bathes the rooms in

a golden light and creates a Mediterranean mood of the kind Soane had experienced in Italy during his Grand Tour. The mirrors used in

different ways, in the form of large framed objects, hidden cabinets or intarsia at specific points, assist the process of spatial deconstruction, by

dissolving or stretching spatial boundaries and by reproducing the collector’s objects which are overlaid with layers of internal and external space.

7 Breakfast Parlour with the balloon-like saucer dome

7 Breakfast Parlour

 

At the rear of the building the experience of space becomes completely labyrinthine in the sequence leading from the Museum or ʻDomeʼ via the

Colonnade to the Picture Room. Here Soane’s fascination with Piranesi, whose work he collected, can be experienced spatially; you feel as if you have

entered an exploded axonometric. The space expands upwards and downwards, the walls and ceilings are encrusted with precious objects and collector’s pieces − a

kind of all-embracing hyper-ornament. The floors are perforated and detach themselves from the walls, the roof has a multitude of arches, vaults and roof

lights that strengthen the spatial effect of the vertical and horizontal layers – from the upper floors the view of the building in the

yard with skylights scattered across its roof is one of the tour’s secret highpoints. The principle of space in space (in space) is omnipresent

and here seems to continue infinitely. The final vanishing point of the sequence of spaces is the Picture Room – at this point you

are in Number 14 – a space that measures only 3.7 by 4.1 metres with a height of 5.1 metres. Soane’s obsession with the

dissolution of space is here taken to a new level. A mechanism with movable panels makes it possible to look at the densely hung

works by Canaletto, William Turner, James Hogarth and others and then to discover that, on the back of the panels as well as on

the wall behind them, there are further art works to be admired.

8 New Picture Room

9 Picture Room

 

You become lost in layers of art and architecture and are then taken by surprise by the view into the mystical void of the

Monk’s Parlour below – the room of Soane’s fictitious creation, Padre Giovanni. After this experience visitors descend into the lower level where in crypt-like,

dimly lit rooms they encounter Soane’s morbid fascination with death and the transience of human life. In the semi-darkness of the Monk’s Yard, between

tombstones and stumps of columns, one sees the gravestone of the family dog with the inscription ʻAlas Poor Fannyʼ.

 

Soane’s collection, one of the largest of its kind, included more than 36,000 objects: architecture models, books, paintings, entire papers such as the drawings

of the two Adams, valuable archaeological finds mixed with plaster casts and spolia, apparently unordered and hung in an associative fashion. Soane was

not interested in encyclopaedic comprehensiveness, objectivity or scientific documentation. He grasped opportunities as they presented themselves and so, for instance, on the bottom level

of the Dome you encounter the most precious piece in his collection, the sarcophagus of Seti I, the acquisition and installation of which Soane

celebrated in the presence of London’s crème de la crème over a period of three days.

 

10 Dome

10 Dome

10 Dome

10 The sacrophagus of the egyptian king Seti I is located at basement level of the dome

 

After the tour of the basement the visitor ascends the curving main staircase in Number 13 to reach the first floor. Via the glowing

yellow South Drawing Room and the North Drawing Room you will in the future reach the second floor with the Model Room in which

Soane’s architecture models are to be presented on a large, centrally positioned shelf. Through the couple’s bed chambers you then return Number 12 where

the newly made temporary exhibition rooms on the first floor will form an integral part of the tour.

Fig.: Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1837, First floor

 

11 Drawing Room

11 Loggia in front of the Drawing Room

12 Model Room

12 View towards the level below through the vitreous table

 

Total work of art

 

The basis for the work of Caruso St John was provided by meticulous conservationist research of the building fabric that aimed at restoring the

rooms as closely as possible to the way they were in the early years. Julian Harrap, inspecting architect to the Museum for many years,

restored the surfaces of the rooms with great care to a ʻpossibleʼ original condition. The team of Caruso St John responded to this careful

reconstruction with an intervention that displays the greatest sensitivity, without, however, being intimidated a sense of awe for the great master. Whereas the independent,

technical nature of the earlier display cases designed by Eva Jiricna in 1995 allowed them to engage in a dialectical relationship with Soane, Caruso

St John move considerably closer to their model in formal terms. This closeness enables them to enter into a far more immediate physical relationship

to the rooms. Of course, Soane’s work offers innumerable sources of inspiration for the display cabinets and furniture. His rooms in Number 13 are

conceived as a total work of art so that in many cases the separating line between architecture, furnishings and exhibition objects is extremely difficult

to draw; everything blends with everything else. The architects have approached this legacy with an inquisitive playfulness. They linked their work directly to Soane’s

principles of composition, forms and materials but also to his mannerisms and used this fund as their design material. The reduced classicism of Karl

Friedrich Schinkel or perhaps also the early work of Gunnar Asplund or Sigurd Lewerentz served as aids to the translation work, placing their interventions

in an ambivalent field of tension somewhere between historicism and classic modernism.

 

To allow the former gallery on the ground floor to be used as a shop, cloakroom and exit in the future the temporary exhibitions

will be shown on the first floor of Number 12, in the Front Gallery and in the Interpretation Room. One of the Museum’s particular

concerns was to be able to show the huge plans from the Soane Lecture Drawings under conditions that are ideal in conservation terms. This

required display cabinets with perfectly tempered air, optimal lighting and large, free hanging surfaces. On account of their weight and the limited load-bearing capacity

of the floor these cabinets had to be placed directly against the wall. The Front Gallery, however, is not a simple space. Its slightly

curved walls take up the asymmetry of the angled party wall between Number 12 and Number 13 and subtly give the space a perceptible

tension. To preserve this spatial effect the display cases, together with their large areas of glass, take up the gentle curvature. Using curved connecting

profiles the built-in furniture is connected in an entirely unforced way with the fireplace wall and window fronts and completes the multi-layered composition of

the wall.

 

13 Shop

 

Not surprisingly Caruso St John also make use of mirrors that are inlaid flush in the furniture like pieces of intarsia work and connect

old and new by means of complex overlays. The architects’ use of Corian is most interesting; essentially a material without any particular characteristics it

can, however, be wonderfully shaped and thus allows a new interpretation of Soane’s work in stone.

 

Sir John Soane’s Museum is the life work of an architect who was a colourful personality. It derives much of its fascination from its

complexity and internal contradictions that developed over a period of years. This is yet a further example of how productive external resistance, in this

case the angled wall of the original lot, can positively influence an architectural design. As in his Bank of England (unfortunately subsequently destroyed) Soane

demonstrates his special mastery through his creative use of existing fabric. The particular achievement of Adam Caruso and Peter St John lies largely in

their efforts to grasp Soane’s way of thinking, which enables them to link their interventions with the existing fabric and in this way to

create a new whole. This way of ʻbuilding furtherʼ also reflects the current tendency to regard building fabric that has been placed under a

preservation order as living and capable of further development. Naturally, always with the proviso that the interventions are carried out with the requisite degree

of empathy and sensitivity.

14 Front Gallery

14 Front Gallery

15 Interpretation Room

 

Notes:

Published in: Werk Bauen + Wohnen, 12.2012, pp. 5–11.

 

Copyrights for pictures and text are covered by EM2N.