This month we sat down with Gareth Hoskins, director of Gareth Hoskins Architects, to discuss the future of cultural design. Our conversation focused on working with historic buildings, how to update their design to integrate them into changing city cultures, and what challenges that process poses.
Gareth Hoskins Architects designed and executed the redevelopment of the National Museum of Scotland. Gareth is also an advisor to the Scottish Government and Chair of Design Review for their national design watchdog Architecture & Design Scotland, responsible for reviewing major projects and advising on the benefits of well-designed buildings and places.
Question: How does your process change when you are designing for a pre-existing cultural building as opposed to starting from scratch?
Gareth: Our design process focuses very much on an understanding of a site, its wider context, and the way people experience and interact with the spaces and buildings we create.
The fact that we are dealing with existing institutions that many people know and love means, on one hand, that there are sensitivities and sentimental resistance to change, but on the other hand, it is often easier for people to visualize the potential of this change.
By developing a thorough understanding of the evolution of a building, we are able to present a clear analysis of the layers of change. We can then suggest how these might be pared back in places to reinstate and enjoy what are often wonderful aspects that have been hidden over time. We also demonstrate how new interventions and additions can be made to reinvigorate or even bring an entirely new life to these places.
Question: How do you integrate the city's culture into the space in a way that will remain relevant for years?
Gareth: Within today's cities, historic cultural institutions play a dual role: on the local level in terms of education and leisure, and on a wider level as tourist destinations and cultural identities. Both of these roles are key to the cultural vitality and life of our cities. To adapt to and embrace these roles, many of these historic institutions have had to rethink and redevelop their presence within their cities, to open up, sometimes literally, their original buildings and engage more with the surrounding spaces and inhabitants.
Question: Give us some examples.
Gareth: Foster's Great Court at the British Museum creates an urban piazza at the heart of the museum that connects the interior to the city beyond. The Victoria and Albert Museum is changing its presence through programs and events that engage wider audiences, and new public spaces that engage with the surrounding city streets (Exhibition Road).
A key aspect of our wider master plan for the redevelopment of the National Museum of Scotland is to embrace this idea of the museum as a social meeting space within the city. We aimed to connect what was once a rather introverted institution with the rich fabric of the World Heritage Site of Edinburgh's historic Old Town-integrating and embedding the museum into the physical and social fabric of the city.
Question: How do you balance preserving the old while building something new?
Gareth: There are inevitably many opinions and sensitivities around the introduction of interventions or additions. In recent history, the Scarpa-esque layering of new elements against the original building fabric has become the accepted norm in terms of clearly articulating the layers of change. More recently, projects such as Zumthor's Cologne or Chipperfield's Neues Museum explore a more sensuous and direct synthesis of the new with the old, rooted in an equivalence of materiality.
Our approach centers around the rediscovery and reinstatement of key spaces or sequences of original buildings. We also try to create a clarity of new interventions within these spaces, and, where appropriate, conduct a more radical surgery to enable a real level of reuse.
Question: What are some obstacles that you see?
Gareth: A common pitfall of working with any historic building is deciding what to do with the existing fabric as work is proceeding on-site. Addressing these issues often leads to delays and oncosts. At the National Museum we worked closely with our client and the conservation bodies to carry out a series of intrusive explorations before the main work started. This had to be carefully handled, as it happened whilst the building was still open to the public. It did allow us to uncover, assess and plan for many potential issues in advance of the main construction works, allowing these to be completed on time and on budget.
Question: How has design for museums and cultural centers evolved in the past five years? Where is it going next?
Gareth: There is no simple answer to this, as the design of museums and cultural centers relates very much to the cultural attitudes and ambitions of different countries around the world. There is a persistent desire to make an iconic architectural statement in response these building types, as seen in recently completed projects such as Hadid's Maxxi in Rome.
There does, however, appear to be more of a questioning as to the appropriateness of such responses and an increasing awareness of the need for these projects to have a greater sense of engagement with the places and people they serve. This counter-point is evident in Chipperfield's Turner beach huts or the public landscape of Snohetta's Norwegian Opera House.
The question for me within many of these projects, as epitomized by Hadid's Glasgow Riverside Museum, is about the sole focus on the shape-making of the architecture while ignoring its relationship to the cities those designs inhabit and the collections they present.
For these buildings to be truly sustainable and lasting institutions, a focus on cultural relevance needs to be seen as an essential aspect of their design.
Question: Tell us something interesting about yourself.
Gareth: Having worked in London for seven years, I deliberately moved back to Scotland to set up our studio. Here we could enjoy living in what is an extremely beautiful place whilst still working across the UK, and, as it turns out, projects as far afield as Toronto and Venice. Rather than being stuck in the bustle of London, we can step out of our house (which is just along the road from Mackintosh's Hill House) and within minutes be taking the kids for a walk up the hills or out on Loch Lomond. Despite the rumors, we even get some sun, sometimes.