Italian Excellence & British Style

06 Jul 2012

In an elegant district of London stands an impressive building with an austere façade, dominated by six large arched windows looking out on the city’s largest public square: Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It is the Sir John Soane’s Museum, the “house-museum” of the great English architect whose life spanned the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Sir John Soane was a leading exponent of neoclassicism, with which he had become deeply familiar during a long stay in Italy. There, he studied ancient monuments, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, and the work of his two major sources of inspiration: G. B. Piranesi and Andrea Palladio. Soane is regarded as a major innovator on several counts. He developed a personal interpretation of classicism, which led him towards novel, pioneering solutions. He designed buildings of a kind that had never been attempted before, such as museums and banks. He used innovative materials such as iron and artificial stone, and modern production methods. And he applied a bold, experimental approach to interior and lighting design.

His residence was the crown of his life’s work. Intended as a fully-fledged architectural laboratory, it was designed and built in several phases. Soane began with an existing structure that he remodelled, initially to set up his study and home. Later, incorporating and altering adjacent properties, he continuously remodelled the interiors to obtain a building that would also be suitable for housing his library, the archive of his drawings, and his vast collection of antiquities and works of art. His students had free access to these holdings, which notably included the sarcophagus of the Pharaoh Seti I. The building comprises three floors interlinked in a complex layout comprising double and triple volumes, mezzanines, staircases, and indoor balconies. The visitor is captivated by the eclectic succession of spaces enhanced by neo-Gothic and picturesque elements and Masonic symbols.

In 1833 Soane negotiated an Act of Parliament to settle and preserve the house and collection for the benefit of “amateurs and students” in architecture, painting, and sculpture. On his death in 1837 the Act came into force, vesting the Museum in a board of Trustees who were to continue to uphold Soane’s own aims and objectives. A crucial part of their brief was to maintain the fabric of the Museum, keeping it “as nearly as circumstances will admit in the state” in which it was left at the time of Soane’s death in 1837 and to allow free access for students and the public to “consult, inspect and benefit” from the collections. To this day, the Sir John Soane’s Museum preserves the interiors as they were at the time, the original furnishings, and the collection assembled by Soane in his twenty years of residence in the building.

The Museum has recently launched a major restoration program. On 6 July 2012, it will inaugurate the new reception area and a gallery for temporary exhibitions that will host a special show to coincide with the Olympics. Entitled “Stadia: Sport and Vision in Architecture,” the event will explore the origins of the modern sports stadia and the legacy of antiquity—a topic that exerted a deep fascination on the versatile English architect.

For the project designed by Caruso St John Architects in London, Goppion produced six wall cases (including three curved cases), seven table display cases, and eighteen units for the bookshop.

The Goppion cases—all derived from our exclusive System Q—offer maximum technological performance and represent the state of the art in security, climate control, and functionality.

The client’s preferences and the Museum’s distinctive history and layout led the exhibit designers to choose a nineteenth-century look for the display cases, with wood finishings that replicate the original red mahogany characteristic of the interiors. In many respects, the challenge for Goppion recalled the new installation that we prepared for the Jewel House in the Tower of London. The metal parts and the technological components for the Sir John Soane’s Museum have been totally concealed under a classical exterior featuring rare-wood panels. At the client’s specific request, the woods are FSC-certified for provenance, traceability, and quality control. Goppion conducted studies and built prototypes ahead of the manufacture of these zero-emission, low-maintenance elements.

To underscore the client’s resolutely traditionalist approach, the panels were French-polished. This technique, dating from the Victorian age, offers several advantages: low toxicity, simple application, ease of repair, and—thanks to the Museum’s team of in-house restorers—low maintenance costs.

Like the Rolls-Royce radiator that Erwin Panofsky discusses in his famous essay, the display cases of the Sir John Soane’s Museum embody a synthesis of innovation and tradition. Inside this “temple” of British architecture, a majestic array of Victorian furniture conceals a powerful, leading-edge product of mechanical engineering (this time, however, of Italian provenance).

Once again, close cooperation with curators and designers from start to finish proved to be Goppion’s winning asset. This latest project adds a further prestigious installation to our track record. We have applied to the Sir John Soane’s Museum the engineering skills acquired and systematized in decades of work for the world’s leading museums. But meeting this new challenge has also given us another opportunity to make investments that enhance our capabilities and expertise—and the quality of the products that we offer our clients.