Opened to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower, Joe Lloyd takes a look at the £40m arts centre aiming to revitalise Plymouth's history and culture.
There is a new colossus looming over Plymouth. The aptly-named Box is a hulking concrete cuboid in the sky, hovering 10m above street level and clad in 149 sun-caching glass panels of various hues. Designed by Atkins under principal architect Kevin Presland, it is the largest double cantilever in the UK. Beneath, in a glass-walled atrium, hangs an ebullient set of brightly-coloured naval figureheads.
The Box refers both to this vast construction and the hybrid structure to which it is part. Atkins’ scheme ties together an Edwardian baroque Museum and Art Gallery and adjacent, roughly contemporary Central Library and Archive building, along with elements of the latter’s 1950s extension. While the Library’s services have been moved to a new location, The Box fuses the functions of museum, art space and archives. The classical St Luke Church’s, joined to The Box across a newly pedestrianised plaza, has been restored and repurposed as a contemporary art gallery. ‘It marries,’ explains Plymouth Council Leader Tudor Evans, ‘the old with the new, safeguards history for the future, protects listed buildings and creates an extension at the same time.’
This miscellaneous nature of these buildings, abutting but never quite connected, is a miniature encapsulation of Plymouth itself. The second-largest city in England’s south-west and the largest located on the Peninsula proper, Plymouth has a hodgepodge cityscape that, in its own way, holds excitement. South of The Box lies one of Britain’s most expansive post-war urban plans, laid out by Patrick Abercrombie and centred around on the now-pedestrianised boulevard Armada Way. Further south still, on the waterfront, there’s a maze of cobbled medieval streets that resembles a Devon fishing village, a sizeable patch of the sort of neo-Regency terraces that characterise the British seaside, and a park studded with monuments to the city’s maritime past.
Said past is not entirely valorising. ‘We’ve become embarrassed,’ says David Draffan of Plymouth Council, ‘with some of that history.’ Home to a military citadel and the former victualling yard of the Royal Navy, it was a launchpad for the British imperialist venture. Admiral John Hawkins, born in 1532 in Plymouth, was England’s first slave trader; he often worked with his cousin from the nearby town of Tavistock, Sir Francis Drake.
The most famous of these events is the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers in Mayflower. 2020 sees the 400th anniversary of this world-shaking voyage, and The Box’s opening is at the core of its celebrations. It cost £40 million, £100,000 for every year since. As part of the scheme, an Anthony Gormley sculpture has been commissioned for the city’s waterfront.
Plymouth’s colonial history, of the euphemistically-named Age of Discovery and beyond, is abundantly reflected in The Box’s rich collections: it includes Drake’s sword, Captain Cook’s letters, Charles Darwin’s drawings from the H.M.S. Beagle and Robert Falcon Scott’s skis, as well as the first recorded reference to a pasty. It also features numerous works of art, many drawn from the Cottonian Collection, granted to the city by a 1915 Act of Parliament. Collection items not on display, including the 25,400 boxes of the local archives, will be stored within the raised Box, which has a controlled environment for conservation.
Below, there are 7 galleries and 6 exhibition areas, including an Active Archive, arranged around booths examining aspects of Plymouth’s history, and a Media Lab on which is projected footage of the city from days gone by. Items of maritime heritage will be displayed in the Trade gallery in the Edwardian museum, and contextualised to reveal their less salubrious aspects.
Conservation is at the heart of The Box’s architectural project, and its halls contain preserved residues from the pre-existing structures from which it was forged. From the contemporary extension you can step out into both the grand 1900s staircase and its no less characterful 1950s equivalent, both of which retain their original features. There have also been rediscoveries: in the education room, made visible from the main entrance, a folklorish 1950s mural has been uncovered. It was boarded up by the archive, concealed as if to await a future unveiling.
Of the pre-existing structures gathered together as The Box, St Luke’s Church is both the oldest and the most interesting. An austere classical building that terminates in a gothic stained glass window, it was built in 1828 by local Anglicans distressed with the High Church stylings of their previous parish. Latterly, it was divided up into storage units for the library. Atkins have restored St Luke’s to its previous austere grandeur while simultaneously transforming it into a high-spec art space, replete with smooth concrete floor.
The work evolved was immense, and that the final result is so seamless is impressive. The ceiling was removed to allow for the installation of a vast support structure for hanging artworks, and the walls were lined with exhibition walls. Rotten windows were replaced by top-lit ones. The lost stained glass window at the gallery’s terminus will be replaced by a newly commissioned work from the Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes, based on the life and work of pioneering naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, some of whose remarkable drawings sit in The Box’s collection. ‘If you live in Plymouth,’ says Draffan, ‘you deserve the same quality of art as in London.’
On several occasions during my visit to Plymouth, there was a sense that The Box project served to bring the city up to standard with the rest of the UK, to – quoting the charlatan currently occupying 10 Downing Street – ‘level up’ the city. Happily, on the evidence of calibre of the museum’s collections and initial programming, and the determined thought spent on conceiving The Box as a cultural core, it might just make Plymouth exceptional.