What can you do with an empty museum? Get creative

Update: the Barbican Quarter Action campaign is hosting a meeting for residents and neighbours at 7pm on Tuesday 17th January 2023 in St Giles Church, Cripplegate. The Barbican Association reports:

“This meeting will focus on the arguments against demolition of the existing buildings and for their re-adaptation and repurposing. Joining the BQA Group will be the 20th Century Society and Ian Chalk (of Ian Chalk Architects whose work has been recognised through a number of architectural awards, including most recently that of Retrofit of the Year at the Architects Journal Retrofit Awards)”.

As I wrote earlier, I think the question of how to retrofit the Museum building is the difficult one – so looking forward to more ideas at the meeting, and any news on moves by the City Corporation.

Previously, November 29 2022

The closure of the Museum of London in a few days has prompted an even-handed article on the future of the site by Observer architectural critic Rowan Moore.

In one sense things haven’t moved on much since the Barbican Quarter Action campaign first challenged the City Corporation’s plans for 780,000 sq ft of offices to replace the Museum building and Bastion house, and help fund a new Museum in West Smithfield. Earlier posts here.

The City has made modest changes, but is pressing ahead with a planning application.

On the other hand the Campaign has gained a lot of publicity and support for its case against demolition because of carbon release, and its studies showing that the Bastion House offices can be safely refurbished.

A letter from the campaign to all City Corporation members says:

“Demolition and construction will release an additional 45,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

“The City needs to prioritise reuse and retrofit over demolition and new build to reduce its own manmade CO2 emissions. This cannot be an option, it must be the default position. But instead of leading on climate change, the City is trailing international good practice.

“The absence of a coherent strategy and master plan for this unique and historical site is wasting significant sums of money. In 2010, £20.5 million was spent on renovating the Museum; in 2015 the buildings were effectively condemned when it was decided to move the Museum to Smithfield.

“The purported benefits of the City’s current plans for London Wall West, the cultural and community offerings and green spaces, combined with slick, professional presentations seek to disguise the overwhelming commercial nature of what is proposed. Moreover, when the site is sold on to a developer, even these limited benefits may not well not survive. What you see is rarely what you get”.

Rowan acknowledges the case for keeping the buildings, saying:

“Bastion House, for example, might work better as a hotel or apartments than as office space. The benefits of retention, such as quicker and cheaper development, should be taken into consideration”.

But he still seems ambivalent about whether a revised development scheme might be appropriate:

“Behind the designs, of course, are questions of money, and the City says it needs the tens of millions that it hopes to make from this site to help fund the new, improved London Museum and some upgrades to the Barbican. But less extravagant-looking architecture would be cheaper. Savings might also be made on the rather vague cultural uses promised for the new development: the physical environment, local and global, matters more”.

The campaign is unequivocal about retaining the buildings in the context of the latest City plans for the Destination City programme to attract tourists.

“We therefore call on the City to save the Museum of London and Bastion House, a brutalist masterpiece by leading architects Powell and Moya.

“Instead of more office space wrapped in glass, we need to think ahead and plan for a future in a different climate.

“To create a vibrant Destination City it will require alternative and complementary uses, which may include residential, hospitality, cultural, educational and leisure.

“This strategic site is too important to be re-thought without the development of a wider strategy for the cultural quarter, which includes the Barbican Centre, the old and the new Museum of London and the whole of Smithfield.

“When planning the future of London Wall West retain, adapt and retrofit must be the starting point and default position. Stop. Reset. Rethink”.

I agree on the need for a strategy of the area, which is uncertain because of changes in the Culture Mile programme which I’ve written about here.

The fundamental flaw in the City’s case, it seems to me, is that there was no consideration of options when the proposed Centre for Music was scrapped. The Property Investment Board was tasked with coming up with a scheme, and in line with their remit went for one that would generate substantial cash.

There’s a lot of sense in Stop. Reset. Rethink. on several fronts, including the returns from alternative use in Bastion House, and the current state of the office market.

What isn’t so clear is what might work in a refurbished Museum of London. It would serve no-one’s interests for the building to stand empty for years if, for example, the campaign succeeded in a judicial review.

The campaign probably doesn’t have the resources to commission experts to come up with a scheme, and the City seems to be digging in on current proposals.

Scope for a good follow-up from Rowan or another architectural critic. This story has legs.


After drafting this post, and adding a headline “What can you do with an empty museum?” I chanced to open the Bloomberg Citylab daily newsletter with an article on How to Drop a New Building on Top of an Old One.

It focussed on façadectomy – the technique of constructing new buildings behind the facade of old ones as response to preservation campaigns.

Developers in Boston have gone one better, incorporating a six-storey warehouse into a new residential project.

“Completed in 2021, the 138-unit development at 100 Shawmut saves the exterior of what was once a warehouse built around 1915. But it also incorporates much of the building’s structure as loft-style residences, using its original skeleton to support a larger mid-rise addition. The result is a 13-story market-rate project, the first of three phases that also includes affordable housing”, writes Kriston Capps.

I’m not thinking of something similar for the Museum of London building, but it did strike me that now is a good time to start thinking laterally about what might be done with the site.

I’m with the Barbican Action Campaign on the need for alternatives to the proposed office development, and it does sound as if there are options for Bastion House.

But without some idea of what might be possible for an empty museum – with or without some development – there’s a danger that a judicial review will fail, and members of the City’s planning committee will just go for the commercial solution.

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