Holburne Museum by Eric Parry 19.08.11

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Bath's Georgian Sydney Hotel was built in 1796 as a casino and as a gateway to the city's pleasure gardens. It was entered through archways which took you first into a foyer and then, through gauze curtains decorated with Apollo strumming his lyre, into a landscape of pure pleasure. Musicians played on the terrace above so that the visitor entered into a magical scene of supper boxes, entertainments, masques, follies and plenty of places of assignation. Something between Vegas, Venice and Vauxhall.

As the demand for pleasure gardens declined in a more uptight Victorian age, the building was converted first into a schoolhouse and then into a museum housing the collection of Sir William Holburne (1793-1874), who had been a young midshipman at the Battle of Trafalgar. In a third transformation, a new £11.2m rear extension by Eric Parry has just opened after a long, painful gestation.

Bath is a very particular city. As a staunch opponent of modern architecture it has somehow acquired only the worst contemporary buildings: awful classical puddings and misconceived high-tech clunkers. Something must have gone wrong here, because Parry's much-objected-to extension is delicate, intriguing and unexpected.

It is effectively a glass block stuck on the back of the museum, sitting somewhere between luxury corporate Mies van der Rohe and top-end London kitchen extensions.But it is lifted by a screen of vertical ceramic fins in a wonderful shade of green that resembles mouldy vegetable soup. It's a pleasing throwback to an Edwardian municipal material that Parry has become adept at working with; he has already used it to great effect on a building in London's New Bond Street (above the Mulberry store). There is however a little discomfort in the ceramic fins being suspended on a glass facade; it's a kind of structural illogic, which runs counter to Parry's unwillingness to make the extension in stone on the basis that it would have required suspending stone above glazing.

The galleries expand the space for the Holburne's huge collection and manage to exhibit it both in the original clutter and in a more museum-like context. The building is crowned by a top-lit gallery currently inhabited by a superb Peter Blake show – its ephemera and pop-culture crap gelling perfectly with Holburne's expensively Victorian bits and bobs. It's good fun, much as Bath was 200 years ago, but isn't any more.

 

Image

Héléne Binet

 

Words

Edwin Heathcote

quotes story

It is effectively a glass block stuck on the back of the museum, sitting somewhere between luxury corporate Mies van der Rohe and top-end London kitchen extensions

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