I researched a number of classical buildings locally for this project. Unfortunately the best examples e.g. Holkham Hall, were closed for the winter and not due to reopen until after Easter. Another possibility was the Norwich Union building in Surrey Street, Norwich. However the course notes state that ideally students should choose a building where the interior is fully accessible to the public, so this ruled the Norwich Union building out as the interior is still used as offices by Aviva and is not fully accessible.
I had planned a trip to London to study some Greek vase paintings and Roman and Greek sculptures so I decided to combine this with the visit to a classical building – the British Museum.
The original design for the museum was a quadrangle with 4 (North, East, South and West) wings. According to the website of the British Museum the building was designed in 1823 by the architect Sir Robert Smirke and was completed in 1852. The design included galleries for classical sculpture as well as staff residences.
According to Oxford Art Online Smirke “was a classicist and he was strongly influenced by the rationalist spirit of neo-classicism” The British Museum website states “Smirke designed the building in the Greek Revival style, which emulated classical Greek architecture.” Describing the South Entrance and Museum forecourt the website continues “The external architecture of the museum was designed to reflect the purpose of the building. The monumental South entrance, with its stairs’ colonnade and pediment, was intended to reflect the wondrous objects housed inside.” Oxford Art Online describes the South entrance “Here a massive Ionic peristyle is combined with a central portico produce an effect of great gravity and power.
Certainly gravity and power were two of the descriptions I would have used to describe the main entrance to the museum. Massive ionic columns support a pediment above the main entrance which is adorned by a number of classical style sculptures.
The sense of gravity and power continues inside within the galleries where sculptures and many other exhibits are displayed in large galleries with very high ceiling heights in many parts. According to Oxford Art Online Smirke was probably the first British architect to use cast iron girders and stanchions “enabling him to roof wide spaces economically and soundly and without internal supports.”
The way in which the design of the building was influenced by the Greek style is shown by one of the exhibits within the museum. In one of the galleries is the Nereid Monument which is a tomb in the form of a Greek temple.
I was struck by the similarities between the main South entrance to the museum and that of the Nereid monument inside. There can be few examples where the major influence on the design of a building can be seen from an exhibit within it.
A number of additions have been made to the building since its original construction including the Reading Room, built within the quadrangle and completed in 1857; the White Wing constructed in 1882-85 and the Duveen Gallery completed in 1939. In 2000 the Great Court, designed by Foster and Partners opened.
The Greek theme continues on the inside of the building, particularly the ceiling of the Weston Hall (designed by Smirke’s brother Sydney) where “The patterns and colours on the ceiling of the Weston Hall were borrowed from classical Greek buildings, which would have been brightly decorated.” (British Museum website).
Sir Robert Smirke was responsible for a number of other private and public buildings including the Theatre Royal in London where Smirke was one of the first architects in Europe to employ the Greek Doric order in public buildings. “It appeared first in his portico for the Theatre Royal, a very impressive building with a Greek facade.” (Oxford Art Online)
Oxford Art Online concludes that Smirke’s architecture “displayed many impressive qualities; grandeur, intelligibility, sound construction and monumental power; and in the British Museum he created one of the great cultural monuments of 19th century Europe.”