Iain Carson @ Benson + Forsyth
Building of the Year Award, 1999
Runner up for Stirling Prize, 1999
The National Museum of Scotland has undergone two major building works in recent times. The first of these saw an extension to the existing Royal Museum building of 1861 (designed by naval architect Captain Francis Fowke) and is a juxtaposition of two different architectural intentions.
Fowke’s building is Scotland’s response to the splendour of Crystal Palace. The plinth and long steps giving it a presence on Chambers Street, the sense of arrival and rotating door, the huge atrium awash with natural light all year round teasing the eye from street, to the colonnade around the tiered gallery, formed by delicately detailed iron work. This was a visible display of architectural and social thinking of the time. There is an element of social display that veils the transition to the objects themselves. Benson & Forsyth’s response to their design challenge relates also to site, location and history and the contemporary response is somewhat different.
The extension looks like a fortress and to an extent it is. It sits on the line of the old city boundary wall and forms the corner point of an important junction. The cylindrical tower, now iconic of this museum, marks the corner point, gives precedence to the entrance point and beyond guides the visitor into the protected nucleus of the museum. This is a hard shell. There is a relationship to Scottish baronial architecture and to the defensive buildings elsewhere in the city.
The formidably thick sandstone walls are given apertures - sometimes more generous than others. There are huge windows - giving more away, glimpses of another existence inside; or they may make reference to castellations and defensive architecture through slender slit windows and peep holes. The museum has to address changes in scale on the properties surrounding it; on one side the discipline and symmetry of the Fowke’s building, and the others on Chambers Street, and on the other side the drop in scale - and style - of the building of Greyfriars.
Internally the Museum extension makes reference to another point in Scotland’s history, its industrial past - exposed red steel alludes to the Forth rail bridge, which can be seen from the roof terrace. The two buildings are interconnected and sit alongside one another as two interesting design solutions, with two different characters, both doing the same job. The building reinterprets familiar architectural elements into a contemporary whole. A large triangular atrium sits at the innersanctum of the new building and allows visual connection across the galleries, relating to its older neighbour. This is a vertical tour of Scottish history - birth of a nation in the basement and impressions of modern Scotland at the upper floor. This is a museum example of the objects and building enhancing each other and forming a journey through time...and space.