MY KIND OF BUILDING | Sir John Soane’s Museum
8 January 2020
The London building that sets the standard for innovative conversions
“It really is something else – an inventive, clever building, with so much pioneering design that has influenced what we employ knowingly and unknowingly in modern architecture.”
For Nikhil Dhumma, Interior Design Lead at Tétris UK, the 19th-century Sir John Soane’s Museum is an under-recognised star of London landmarks whose influence can be seen in modern design trends from flexible-use space to urban conversions.
Converted from three Georgian townhouses in Holborn between 1792 and 1823, the space was a personal project of prominent architect John Soane.
Soane originally acquired and rebuilt Number 12 Lincoln Inn Fields as a home, office and personal gallery for his vast collection of antiquities. In 1807, he purchased the adjoining house for more gallery space, and by 1823, his collection was overflowing, having grown to include striking items such as the sarcophagus of the Egyptian king Seti I.
Keen for the space to function as a place of education, Soane acquired a third adjoining house, rebuilding it to create more living space while extending his gallery space, always rearranging each piece until its placement was deemed poetic.
“The building is a succession of moments of architectural delight,” says Dhumma. “Much like the collection of art and antiquities housed within, it’s painstakingly designed and full of surprises that leave you gazing in awe.”
Playing with light
Behind the museum’s plain white Norfolk brick façade lies an interior that makes striking use of light to enhance the sense of space.
Throughout, the use of yellow glass in windows warms what light streams in. A sculpture-lined lobby has slivers of mirror embedded in its walls. In the drawing room, mirrors placed behind exhibits or behind the bookcase give the illusion of a room beyond.
“In darkness, light reflecting off these mirrors intensifies the sensory perception of the space,” says Dhumma.
In one gallery, a concealed skylight casts golden light onto classical sculptures, while the basement is reminiscent of an Egyptian crypt with its darker colours and stained glass windows that layer available light to create a cathedral effect.
“The entire space is so full of design and lighting tricks that unless you were told, you would appreciate the effect but you wouldn’t necessarily comprehend how it was done,” says Dhumma.
A pioneer for today
Many of the designs employed in this Regency-era building have found particular use in the design of small spaces common to metropolises like London.
In the study, a slide-out workspace represents an early example of the multi-use design so central to the modern trend for flexible working, while the hinged walls in the gallery are one of the earliest recorded uses of movable planes.
“These are the piece de resistance,” says Dhumma. “They create triple the amount of space by opening up the possibility for artwork to be displayed behind other pieces.”
When a controversial series of paintings by William Hogarth was exhibited, for example, these were hung on the movable walls, hidden until visitors swung the panels open.
“Soane was extremely clever in the way he adapted the space specially for what each area was intended to do,” says Dhumma.
The influence of the building can especially be noted in art galleries and how artwork is presented.
“If you look at how galleries top-light paintings, that’s been influenced by Soane and how he controlled the lighting for every piece of artwork,” says Dhumma.
Preserved for posterity
Many of the techniques in the Soane Museum can be seen in Soane’s previous architectural works, especially the Dulwich Picture Gallery where a skylight is fitted with yellow glass, filtering the light to warm the space below.
“The museum represents the distillation of so many ideas developed over his career, crammed into the relatively small footprint of three townhouses,” says Dhumma. “Anytime you see the use of mirrors to increase the sense of space, LED strip lights used to light a ceiling or create an accent effect – these are direct descendants of what John Soane designed.”
Though the Soane Museum’s neoclassical style fell out of favour in the Victorian era, a series of alterations, including a recently completed, seven-year £30 million restoration, have maintained its original spirit, and even opened some rooms to the public for the first time.
“Whether or not you’re into neo-classical architecture, you have to respect the sheer creativity of what Soane has done,” Dhumma say. “It really was the ultimate conversion project – an exemplar of adaptive re-use – and one whose design innovations influence many trends today.”