Alfred Waterhouse and The Natural History Museum

Ah…the museum of my childhood, the natural history museum was a place of choice that my friends and I would go off and visit firstly because it was free and secondly because of the awesome dinosaur exhibits.

On taking my daughter to share in my childhood delights recently I was struck not so much by the some 70 million items within five main collections of Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology and Zoology but by the building itself, it is an awesomely impressive structure.

The site for the museum was chosen back in 1862 where the  International Exhibition building stood and was known as ‘the ugliest building in London’.

Captain Francis Fowke, who won the design competition for the new Natural History Museum which was a little on the odd side when he was the architect of the ‘the ugliest building in London’ but Fowke died quite suddenly in 1865 and the contract was awarded to up and coming architect Alfred Waterhouse.

Waterhouse altered Fowke’s design. Originally it had been of a renaissance theme but was to changed to German Romanesque style and that is the majestic building we have today.

From Great Buildings

The building has a bilaterally symmetrical plan around a central entrance which leads to a cathedral-like hall with grand staircase to second floor galleries. The street facade marches 680 feet along a Kensington street. Two three story wings of side-lit galleries with tower pavilions at their ends flank a slightly projecting central entrance with two towers around a recessed arched portal. Behind this layer, internal courtyards separate top-lit back galleries, which are parallel to the central cathedral gallery and perpendicular to the facade. The facade’s towers and those in the back which house stairs and mechanical shafts give the simple rectangular massing a romantic and punctuated skyline.

The building has a structural iron framework of columns and beams, supporting concrete vaults masked by plasterwork ceilings or iron and glass roofs. Fawn and blue-grey colored terra cotta both faces and ornaments the building. Inexpensive and durable, terra cotta was both resistant to acids and washable, ideal for use in facing buildings in dirty Victorian cities. 

Waterhouse hoped  “that the Gothic revival would be more than a mere revival — that it would turn from a revival into a growth.” and this still stands as a monument to his ideal.