On not being overwhelmed by the largest covered square in EuropeOIOI

Created in 2000 by Foster + Partners the Great Court is the main circulation space for access to the galleries of The British Museum. Prior to the creation of the covered courtyard the museum’s linear plan meant that visitors had to retrace their steps to get from one gallery to another.

Originally a courtyard garden containing the celebrated rotunda British Library Reading Room, the space was enclosed by the BuroHappold engineered glazed canopy to create the largest covered square in Europe.

In a review of the new space Jonathan Glancey wrote in The Guardian ‘This newly excavated and brilliantly remodelled courtyard is likely to become one of the most popular, and certainly the busiest, meeting places in London this side of the concourses of Waterloo and Victoria stations.’ He was spot on right.

Over six million people a year visit The British Museum. They mostly enter through the Great Court which contains information points, a bookshop, café and stairs up and down to the restaurant, learning spaces and temporary exhibition galleries.

The space is big enough to accommodate large numbers of people but not if they clog up in the main entrance portico. This was the problem we were asked to solve.

We recognised that too much information on too many signs or ‘stele’ (totems) as they were referred to, sometimes at a height not visible through crowds, was delaying decision making and creating the lag as visitors stood to read and orient themselves in the unexpectedly massive and startlingly beautiful space.

Our first decision was to separate the museum wayfinding information from promotional messaging about current and future exhibitions. This meant we could cut down the quantity of wayfinding stele, from 19 to 10, immediately reducing the amount of clutter and information to be taken in. Wayfinding information was placed above head height on the stele.

Promotional messaging was displayed on banners at high level around the perimeter of the Great Court.

All graphics were matched to The British Museum’s overall identity, overseen by John McConnell. We introduced a new beacon colour at the top of the wayfinding stele that manages to work in the frequently changing green tinged light that floods through the immense glass canopy.

Much testing was taking place to search for a shade of red that could cope with the shifting light. Fortunately, the appearance of a catering manager walking the breadth of the space wearing red jeans in a shade that we could see worked solved the problem. The beacon red matches those jeans perfectly!

The New York City block in the heart of the City of LondonOIOI

navigation system

From the founding vision to the delivery detail, Bloomberg’s European HQ is a story of commitment – ‘A staggering commitment to design quality.’ That was the verdict of the Architects Journal judging panel recognising Bloomberg as Client of the Year 2018. The building went on to win the 2018 RIBA Stirling Prize for Foster + Partners.

Selected by Foster + Partners, we were part of the world class Bloomberg team. 

Fosters knew we would understand and respect the design ambitions for the building but that we would also be up to solving the considerable challenge of making this open, flowing building legible to the 4000 people who would use it. 

Bloomberg’s business ethos is about cooperation and collaboration. The whole building plan encourages serendipitous meetings. A detail to support collaboration is what the architect describes as ‘organic clusters of desks and spaces.’ They are clusters of up to 800 work stations. The challenge was how to help people find their desk when they are very often first time or irregular users of the building and they will rarely be met and guided to their destination desk. 

Our solution was inspired by New York – fitting for a company founded in and so much part of the Bloomberg brand. The desk areas can be seen as a sort of city block. The architectural features of the building – the central spiral ramp, materials used in particular themed spaces, artworks – function as visual markers people orient themselves by just as you’d use landmarks in New York City. 

The grid navigation system delivers detail in a familiar way. We identified a navigational grid marked out by what we think of as avenues – six of them from A through to F. Just like in a city you find your avenue and then follow the sequence of numbers until you get to your spot. 

Because it’s a familiar navigation convention, signage can be kept to a minimum. The grid is depicted on prominent screens as people exit the lifts. It’s a simple to get idea that’s presented in a clear and timely way to the first time visitor.

We worked with graphic designers Studio Fernando Gutierréz to deliver ‘visually quiet’ signs that are beautiful and effective and fit the design integrity of the project.

Our contribution to the building has been described as  ‘A masterclass in reductive signage…clean and elegant.’ We are very proud to have been part of the team that delivered this wonderful building.

Tate Britain infused with Tate modernOIOI

Tate Britain wayfinding

In collaboration with John Morgan studio, our work with Tate Britain had two phases: the refurbishment of the original galleries on the Main Floor and the opening of Caruso St John’s rotunda at the Millbank Entrance. 

Tate Britain is the national home of British art from 1500. The first exhibition in the new galleries was the chronological rehanging of the permanent collection. Penelope Curtis, museum director responsible for the project, described the achievement of it. ‘What seems historical fades into the modern and into the contemporary. I hope you can have an experience of the building and of the collection as one walk through British Art.’ 

1.5 million people visit Tate Britain every year. Our task was to help their journey and pick up the theme of craftmanship and deep understanding of what this building is about. 

Hand painted, lacquered, gold leaf numbers mark the date thresholds to the rooms of the chronological hang. Wall mounted schematic guides illustrate where you are in the chronology adding to the sense of moving through time. Made of brass, they pick up the marble scallop patterned shapes of the rotunda. 

The gallery wall colours are from the 1897 Sidney Smith specification. We developed a captioning style that uses angled, silkscreen printed plates which match the gallery paint exactly. 

Two fonts differentiate the permanent facilities (which do not change) and temporary collections. We used a stripped back approach throughout. The original building is 1897 with additions in 1979, 1981 and the 2013 Millbank development. 

To achieve consistency in this inconsistent space we designed graphic panels mounted on freestanding anodised aluminium frames. They speak Tate. And although it’s Tate Britain they fit seamlessly. Modern and at home in the building.

The whole project was an expression of old and new to achieve a quality of timelessness. 

Every choice we make has a site specific or sense of place rationale in addition to the functional direction and description purposes. Even without the back story the selections make visually intuitive sense. 

A most dramatic story is told by the shrapnel scars we found behind the original Millbank Entrance sign. We chose to leave them uncovered to tell their story of strife, survival, continuity.

North Sea light – the illumination of art and placeOIOI

Gallery signage

Turner Contemporary is an art gallery take on old boat sheds. The building sits close enough to shore to need to be raised from high tide flooding and the glass cladding and windows are strong enough to withstand North Sea waves. This North Sea sky is the point of the gallery being here. 

JMW Turner visited and painted on exactly this spot staying in Mrs Booth’s long gone guest house because he said ‘…the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe.’ On this spot the northern light is reflected from the sea creating perfect cool, steady artist’s light.

The vision for the gallery was ‘building space’ as architect David Chipperfield described it. ‘From the beginning we were interested in making very pure, simple spaces for art and trying to use the light and the orientation of the site – an orientation Turner himself enjoyed and the reason for him being here.’

Collaborating with John Morgan studio, we took our brief from the building’s atmosphere of scaled back simplicity.

Signage uses the mono-spaced Akkurat font. It’s a typewriter style font – punchy and with a utility feel. We heightened the mono-spaced effect through the fabrication of Traffolyte scrabble inspired tiles that slot into wall mounted runners for foyer information boards.  Unlike an art museum, Turner Contemporary gallery has no permanent collection. The adaptable foyer boards fit the idea of no permanent display very well.  They look ready for change.

We carried the mono-spacing through on signs applied directly to walls. Matt black graphics screen printed directly on top of a gloss lacquer rectangle that frames the typesetting. Signs that are subtle, beautiful and clear.

Our ambition was to do more engraving into the external concrete retaining wall running along the side of the main building. Engraving Turner Contemporary into the smooth concrete would reveal the stone and pebble aggregate that gives concrete its strength. Appropriate for the seaside spot. Sadly, we were thwarted by the manufacturing process of concrete which leaves regularly spaced draw hole indentations in precisely the wrong places. The most beautiful ideas sometimes come up against insurmountable barriers.