If ever proof were needed that quality of architecture is no barrier to popularity, it can be found in the plucky port city of Plymouth. Its Drake Circus shopping centre, a car crash of cladding, was awarded the Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest building in the UK when it opened in 2006. Yet it has since become the beloved, beating heart of the city. The Beckley Point student housing development, a Stalinesque ziggurat topped with an awkward spire, was also shortlisted for the hated award in 2018. Locals instantly rallied to its defence, praising it as “the best building in Plymouth for 20 years”, bringing a thrilling “touch of Las Vegas” by night.
And so we come to the Box, the city’s new £46m museum and gallery, hailed as the biggest cultural centre in south-west England, and proud bearer of “Europe’s largest unsupported cantilever”. It is a fitting name for a big clumsy box that has been plonked on top of the city’s Edwardian museum and art gallery, as if an out-of-town storage shed got blown here in a gale.
But once again, first impressions can be deceptive. It may not be a thing of beauty, but this big, practical structure provides a welcome addition to the city, creating a new home for a lively programme of exhibitions and storage for the 2m-strong collection, in premises three times the size of the original museum. It might be nominated for further awards of ugliness, but that’s unlikely to put anyone off, or dent the city’s pride in this impressive achievement.
“We wanted it to feel like we were holding the city’s treasures up to the sky,” says Caroline Cozens, strategic projects manager at Plymouth City Council, standing beneath the big sparkly shed, which sticks out a precipitous eight metres beyond the original building. “It’s a precious jewellery box for all to see, and we hope it will be a catalyst for a different kind of regeneration.”
Clad with 2,000 aluminium panels of varying shades, the archival box and galleries beneath are the work of Atkins, a multinational behemoth, whose multidisciplinary portfolio brims with everything from super-sewers to ecocities. Like Plymouth, Atkins has been twice nominated for the Carbuncle Cup (for Newport Station and Oakfield Primary School in Rugby), and is better known for engineering brawn behind the scenes than the kind of architectural finesse expected of a cultural centre. The architects were not selected through an international competition, as a project of this magnitude might usually dictate, but plucked off an existing council framework – in the same way as procuring a waste management contract.
Given this inauspicious beginning, the resulting complex is surprisingly successful; it has created a place where the content and ambition mostly outweigh the niggles of the building itself. The most important part of the project is its contribution to city, in opening up the dead space behind the museum to create a new piazza between the museum and St Luke’s, a Unitarian church from 1828 that has been renovated as a contemporary gallery under the scheme. It features a wonderful external pulpit, where clergymen once preached to the street, which you can now scamper up to declaim to crowds gathered in the new square. The stained glass windows have been restored and are now lit from behind, creating alluring lightboxes at night, while new routes have been opened through the site, linking the university to student housing beyond.
Entering the Box itself through a rather corporate glazed lobby, visitors are greeted by a magnificent flotilla of brightly painted ships’ figureheads floating overhead. These enormous pieces of carved timber, some weighing up to two tonnes, lead past the inevitable cafe and gift shop to a series of galleries that tell Plymouth’s colourful history through the ages, mostly housed in rooms in the original Edwardian building. Exhibition designers Event have crafted a good balance, combining plenty of objects from the collection with 3D projection-mapped models and interactive digital globes, to tell the story of 100 voyages that began in Plymouth, from Francis Drake’s to Greta Thunberg’s. The decision to do away with captions in favour of interactive touchscreens now seems less wise in the Covid context – but the museum says that styluses will be provided.
Other galleries showcase the brilliantly varied provincial collection, which combines the council’s own museum holdings, the city’s archives, film and photographs from the South West Film and Television Archive and the South West Image Bank, with displays ranging from early moving images to pickled sea creatures in jars, birds’ eggs and a gigantic woolly mammoth. In places, the original Edwardian interior shines through, along with parts of the 1950s library, rebuilt after the war. They bring welcome stretches of decorative terrazzo flooring, wooden panelling and a fine mural to Atkins’ otherwise workmanlike interiors of grey carpet tiles, suspended ceilings and glass balustrades topped with stainless steel handrails – a municipal aesthetic more reminiscent of a council office than a palace of culture.
Finally, there is the actual box of the Box, the vast floating concrete container that houses the rest of the archive in climate-controlled stacks. “A museum tends to be a bit like an iceberg,” says Cozens, “only ever having a tiny percentage of the collection on display at any one time.” The rest is usually underground, or stored off-site, but Plymouth has flipped the iceberg, putting its safe in the sky. The primary reason, it seems, was to attract funding.
“The ‘floating treasure chest’ was the vision that the funders could buy into,” Cozens explains, referring to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, which co-funded the project with the council. Many museums are now making a feature of their archives, from the Boijmans Museum’s great shiny salad bowl in Rotterdam, to the V&A’s forthcoming open storage centre in Stratford. But Plymouth’s vault won’t be open to the public; it is back-of-house thrust centre stage. Given it is the primary visible gesture of the project – indeed the very feature that gave it its name – it seems perverse not to make it accessible.
There could well have been more intelligent and elegant ways to spend £46m, with greater attention lavished on the organisation of the building and the craft of its making. The council’s choice of Atkins was similar to its choice of Antony Gormley for its new waterfront sculpture: unoriginal and uninspiring, but a safe pair of hands that ultimately delivers on its objectives. Next time, they might have the courage and confidence to aim a little higher – not that any criticism is likely to dampen local enthusiasm for this big, bold beacon.