Cutty Sark Restoration: 2012 Carbuncle Cup Winner â Worst New Building Design in Britain
In April, we posted about aÂ scathing review of theÂ Cutty SarkÂ restoration byÂ Andrew Gilligan, theÂ Telegraphâs London Editor. Â HeÂ referredÂ to theÂ restorationÂ as âa clucking, Grade A … turkey.â Â I have not seen the ship but I share many of Gilligan’s concerns. (I will beÂ visitingÂ the composite clipper ship in a few weeks when I attend the Historical Novel Society Conference in London, so I will have theÂ opportunityÂ to see for myself.) Â Mr. Gilligan is not alone in his dislike of the Cutty SarkÂ restoration. Â The British architectural trade journal, Building Design, has announced that the restoration of the historic tea clipper is the 2012 winner of the Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building design in Britain.
Grimshawâs disastrously conceived restoration of the Cutty Sark is winner of this yearâs BD Carbuncle Cup, tragically defiling the very thing it sets out to save.
As a naval architect, I couldn’t help but grimace when I saw theÂ photosÂ of the ship suspended from the gunnels with no support whatsoever along the keel. Â The keel isÂ integralÂ to the ship’s structure, which wasn’t designed to hang in the air without support from the keel, like the fiberglass blue whale at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Â Ellis Woodman,Â Building DesignÂ executive editor andÂ Carbuncle Cup judge,Â apparently agrees.
The schemeâs myriad failings stem from one calamitous choice: the decision to hoick the 154-year-old clipper close to three metres into the air on canted steel props. The Cutty Sark Trust assures us that this very invasive surgery was crucial to the shipâs long-term conservation. Its former dry-docked situation had caused the hull to distort but now, elevated and protected from the elements within a fully air-conditioned glass enclosure, it will supposedly maintain its shape. Historic ship experts have, however, been all but united in their disdain for the strategy. Even the Cutty Sarkâs own former chief engineer, Peter Mason, resigned from the project in 2009 after seeing computer simulations that suggested the act of lifting would put a dangerous level of stress on the fabric.Â (Emphasis added) So why do it?
One reason is surely that the projectâs architect, Grimshaw, found it exciting. It is notable that the practiceâs Spine House, completed in OberkĂŒlheim in Germany in 2000, features a remarkably similar section: a timber-clad, boat-like vessel is held aloft on steel legs, while high-level glazing to either side admits toplight to the undercroft. The architect clearly found the chance to restage this drama using an actual boat irresistible.
The arrangement also presented a powerful commercial appeal. With the ÂŁ12 price of admission fresh in their memory, the visitor entering the volume created beneath the shipâs hull canât help but be struck by how little it contains. A cafĂ© huddles at one end, a display of figureheads at the other, but a game of five-a-side football could comfortably be staged in between. The opportunity to inspect the underside of the hull is welcome enough, but the roomâs real raison dâĂȘtre is the lucrative corporate function trade. As the trust has acknowledged, a key ambition was always to create âa corporate hospitality venue to rival Tate Modernâ.
From street level, the once thrilling lines of the shipâs stern and prow have now been obscured behind the new glass enclosure. Misdirected as the strategy was from the start, the early renderings â undertaken when the original concept architect youmeheshe was still involved â did at least suggest a degree of delicacy. Along the way, however, the promised soap-bubble of frameless, double-curved glass has been abandoned in favour of a gawky paraphrase of the roof of Fosterâs British Museum Great Court. The issues of how such a thing might meet the ground or how an entrance might be made in it do not appear to have detained the architect for long.
Having found their way past an expansive retail opportunity, visitors are taken into the ship by way of a hole bashed through the side of the hull, before circulating from deck to deck past an exhibition pitched squarely at eight-year-old enthusiasts for Pirates of the Caribbean. On reaching the top, they are taken across a gangway to a huge and startlingly banal lift, stair and air-conditioning tower from which they can access the undercroft.
While the neatness of the circulation diagram canât be faulted, one is left bewildered by the idea that this jewel of British maritime history should have been subjected to such dramatic adjustment in order to equip it for an age of mass tourism.
The ship demanded the sensitivity afforded to other great small London museums like the Soane, but instead it has been comprehensively reimagined as a theme-park attraction.
The Cutty Sark Trustâs chairman, Maldwin Drummond, has said that the aim was to present the ship âas though for some unexplained reason the crew had gone ashoreâ â a worthy goal but one that this tragically ill-conceived project singularly fails to meet.