British Museum Great Court
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
United Kingdom

Foster and Partners 2000

Although it seems that Foster's answer to almost any problem is a glass dome with interesting geometry (Berlin's Reichstag, London's City Hall and Swiss Re 'gherkin'), his glass-covered court at the British Museum is particularly compelling. Visitor numbers at the museum had swelled far beyond what the buildings were designed for, and the main galleries - which doubled as arteries as well as exhibition spaces - were crowded by visitors trying to get from A to B. While the Louvre in Paris solved its comparable problem by creating a new circulation space beneath its massive courtyard, topped by I.M. Pei's pyramid, the British Museum has instead covered its rather smaller court, to create a magnificent central space leading directly into the galleries on each side. 

 

Dominant within the original courtyard was the squat, cylindrical tower of the Reading Room that was part of the British Library (where Marx wrote Das Kapital, among its other claims to fame). To cover the space between the four sides of the court (92 x 73m) and this central cylinder, Foster has created a glass roof in the shape of the top half of a donut - but no ordinary donut, since this one has a circular hole in the middle but is square around the outside. The resulting curves, traced out by the structural glazing (and by its shadows on a sunny day) give the space much of its character. A slightly unearthly quality of light comes from the mass of green ceramic dots covering the outer panes of glass to limit the amount of sunlight entering the court.

To make sense of the space, the project also involved extensive re-facing of the existing buildings, especially the outside face of the Reading Room, where a new limestone casing hides twenty concrete-filled steel columns that support the new roof.

 

In contrast to the controversy that surrounded the Louvre pyramid, this space at the British Museum has been created with no loss of what was there before. The courtyard was never previously open to visitors, and was filled in with storage, but became available as space following the move of the British Library to its new building. In fact, as part of the Foster project the area in front of the museum entrance was turned from an employees' car park into lawn, so the available outside space for visitors has actually increased.

 

Simon Glynn 2004


How to visit

The Great Court is open to the public as part of the British Museum. Admission is free. 

The court also houses to cafés (within the plaza) and a restaurant (at the top of the stairs that encase the Reading Room), and appears to be succeeding as a destination independent of the museum. Its opening hours stretch for longer than the galleries around it, at both ends of the day.

For directions, opening hours and other information please visit www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk.  


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