David Liddicoat admires a subtle and sensitive intervention at Chatham Historic Dockyard by Baynes & Mitchell Architects
After a year dominated by nationalist politics and yearnings for past greatness, it is instructive to visit the Historic Dockyard in Chatham. More than 400 warships – including the Victory – were launched there before the dockyards’ eventual closure in 1984. Since then the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust has preserved the site’s Georgian core, which is open to the public. The latest attraction is the £9m ‘Command of the Oceans’, an exposition of Chatham’s role in the expansion of the British Empire during the Age of Sail.
Designed by London-based architect Baynes & Mitchell, the project is in two parts. Considered landscape interventions help visitors navigate the open yards, while a deceptively simple new building enables the repurposing of historic workshops as museum spaces. Jointly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Homes & Communities Agency as well as private donors and trusts, the project opened to the public in May 2016.
Covering 400 acres in a bend on the River Medway, the dockyards’ scale is daunting. The articulated ground plane was laid out to manoeuvre enormous timbers between the river, the briney ‘pickling ponds’ and the joinery workshops. In collaboration with archaeologists, Baynes & Mitchell has selectively exposed and restored key elements (some by Brunel) and introduced subtle black limestone pathways inlaid with descriptive brass plaques. These guide and inform without obscuring original features beneath twenty-first century street clutter.
The new building completes a range of irregular sheds that traverse the dockyard. Its slender, pitched-roof form, squeezed between two former joinery workshops, resembles a keenly-sharpened pencil. Though related to its gable-fronted neighbours, the inscrutable black zinc facade distinguishes the new structure and is a visual attractor from the opposite end of the yard. The buildings each side, once mast houses and sail lofts, have undergone sensitive upgrades to turn them into museum environments.
Visitors enter via a long, blackened steel gangway and are greeted by a bright and lofty orientation space. Elegant scissor trusses echo traditional shipbuilding tropes with their raw black ironwork and mortice and tenon joints, and are oiled to a ghostly white, echoing the pale painted woodwork of the original workshops.
In contrast to the lightweight structure, ramps defined by black-oiled steel balustrades and board-marked concrete walls lead down into the exhibition spaces. At the end of the snaking route are the remains of HMS Namur, a frigate that fought at Trafalgar and featured Horatio Nelson’s innovative round bow design. For unknown reasons, the ship’s timbers were dismantled, stored beneath the workshop floor, and forgotten. Their rediscovery in 1995 was the spark for the Command of the Oceans project.
The timbers are too fragile to be moved, so they remain lying in state, in ambient atmospheric conditions. To reveal the exhibit, the architects removed the floor that had previously concealed the Namur. Although a controversial strategy in a scheduled ancient monument, it permitted the insertion of a new, elevated deck. The resultant space is a solemn, compressed crypt beneath the main visitor centre spaces.
Raw steel collars connect the primary beams to existing timber columns, adhering to the conservation principles of legibility and reversibility, and accommodating the irregular setting-out of the original building. Visible scarf-jointed extensions to the timber columns are elevated on bush-hammered concrete pedestals, further distinguishing old and new. Naval craftsmen assembled the original buildings at Chatham, deploying familiar shipbuilding materials and methods to create utilitarian but architecturally adventurous structures. Baynes & Mitchell has chosen materials and methods consistent with this tradition in a sensitive evocation of the dockyards’ heyday as a place of making, ambition and invention.
Baynes and Mitchell
Price & Myers
Skelly & Couch
Land Design Studio
Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust (CHDT)