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Blue Space : The Wellcome Wing of the Science Museum, London


by Richard MacCormac

This essay first appeared in Architectural Design Profile No. 128 ‘Frontiers: Artists & Architects’ 1997

This is a statement of work in progress towards the creation of a big blue space, perhaps the biggest blue space.

It has its antecedents, starting with Sir John Soane’s lumiere mysterieuse, his perception that coloured light disembodies, his realisation of this in parts of his museum and, most specifically, in the mausoleum of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Soane’s use of light as a coloured wash is related to his fellow Academician JMW Turner’s use of glazes and washes in a dissolution of materiality which prefigures late 20th-century experiments in space and light, such as the work of Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Soane’s use of colour and light amplifies a deliberate ambiguity of space definition in his architecture which places enclosing walls beyond expected boundaries.

MacCormac Jamieson Prichard have developed these ideas in various ways in recent work. In the chapel for Fitzwilliam College Cambridge, the curved, light, washed walls stand outside the space defined by the columns supporting the roof. In the intermediate concourse at Southwark Station, which will serve the Bankside Tate Gallery, the architects have worked with artist Alex Beleschenko to create a truncated, elliptical cone 17 metres high and 40 metres long at the base, consisting of 630 triangles of glass. The work is screen-printed blue and virtually opaque at the base, grading off as it ascends to near transparency, where daylight penetrates down the back of the screen. It will offer various combinations of deep blue opacity, reflectivity, translucency and transparency, amplifying the unexpectedness of strong daylight in an underground space, using the sky-colour blue as part of that inversion of expectations.


The: Wellcome Wing of the ScienceMuseum: ‘Theatre of Science’

Visual and aural influences on an architect are never premeditated and only becomes apparent subsequently. In retrospect, two exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery seem to have been important for the ScienceMuseum project – Yves Klein and James Turrell. Klein Blue is so saturated that one looks into, rather than at it, as though into space.

At the Hayward, Turrell exhibited work using light to achieve an extraordinary dissolution of boundaries, and a pursuit of evanescence which is also a characteristic of pieces by his close colleague Robert Irwin. In Britain these ventures have parallels in the work of Phao Phanit and Martin Richman.

In the Wellcome Wing project the intention in the use of colour is psychological – to create an interior which has the cool blue radiance of a night sky, to create a sense of elation and wonder (what in the 18th century would have been called ‘a sense of the sublime’) so as to create an appropriate frame of mind for approaching an exhibition of modern science, of biotechnoloy.

To achieve this the architects have appointed a Dutch firm of lighting specialists, Hollands Licht/Rogier van der Heide, to work with them and with Ove Arup & Partners on the lighting and colour in the primary fit-out of the building. The design development is being undertaken with computer models, physical models and an artificial sky and sun. The first stage has been to create a computer model of the blue west window to ascertain the performance required of its two layers consisting of an external membrane of perforated metal protecting a layer of blue glass. The objectives to be met were as follow: an internal image of blue; a transmittance of daylight which produces about 50 lux from an overcast sky within 6 metres of the window; a transmittance of a maximum of 150 lux within 6 metres of the window when the sun is shining; no sunlight penetration during opening hours a restriction on the visible cast of blue light to within 6 metres of the window; an external image of blue at night.

The computer model established that the perforated metal had to provide complete solar protection. This allowed the blue glass to transmit enough light to appear strongly coloured from within on an overcast day and to appear blue when artificially lit from inside at night.

This has led to a series of tests using a mock-up of an artificial sky and sun combining various perforated metal screens with a range of blue glass sheets of different intensities. These physical modelling tests have established objectives which have to be reconciled. The screen necessary for total solar protection tends to conflict with the external visibility of the blue screen at night. This can be resolved with the orientation of the perforations obscuring the path of the sun but allowing visibility of the glass below the horizontal. The stronger the intensity of the glass from within and without; the stronger the blue cast into the exhibition areas. This can be resolved by limiting the transmittance to about three per cent of the full spectrum of daylight which allows exhibition lighting levels to locally eliminate the blue cast.

Another test using physical models has been undertaken in the Hollands Licht studios in Amsterdam, where they constructed 1:5 models of bays of the interior in a simulated environment which could test the concept against a range of ambient lighting levels. Here the proposition has been to dissolve the boundary of the space by using a fabric scrim in front of a solid screen lit with cold cathode tubes using blue filters and reflectors to create an almost even spread of light. The scrim attracts focal length so that the blue lit plane behind is dislocated, appearing as an evanescent space. Blue light constitutes about 10-15 per cent of the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum but the visual response of the eye varies depending on whether its is dark (19 per cent) or light (3.5 per cent) adapted. With effectively monochromatic blue light passing through the walls itwill be possible to project complete colour images onto the scrim which will seem to be floating on a penumbra of blue.