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St Fagans National History Museum

St Fagans
Written by Roma Publications

St Fagans National History Museum

The National History Museum at St Fagans was established in 1946 as an early example of an open air museum. The Grade II listed main visitor building complex, providing galleries and visitor facilities was completed in 1975 and is a prominent example of Welsh modernist architecture by the Percy Thomas Partnership. Architects Purcell were recently commissioned to improve its existing functional layout, as well as provide new orientation and learning spaces as part of the ‘Making History at St Fagans’ redevelopment.

The sites original layout allowed little visitor digression, as it was designed as a strict progression through a series of display spaces and the route included numerous small level changes and other barriers to access. There was a large external courtyard that was isolated and unused, and the space lacked any activity or learning spaces. The building was uninsulated and many of its fits were reaching the end of their design-life. The museum had declared it as unwelcoming to visitors, unfit for purpose and obsolete.

Purcell accepted the design challenge to retain as much of the significant original building as possible, while enhancing the museum’s exhibition, activity and external spaces. To cater for increased visitor numbers, the building was re-organised and its complex spatial relationships altered to incorporate additional learning spaces, re-orientate key galleries and create a more intuitive visitor route.

Purcell proposed to roof over the existing courtyard to create a large, welcoming and exciting orientation space and revitalise visitor facilities, flooded with daylight with universal access to all elements of the museum. The new space compliments the strong architectural composition of the existing buildings and enables visitors to circulate from one level to the next, through key exhibition areas, before reaching the outdoor museum. Learning spaces within the heart of the museum are now linked to key archive and collection stores. New exhibition space is provided with woodland views and connections to the outdoor museum beyond.

Purcell’s design saw the covering of an existing courtyard to create a large “orientation space” with access to all the Museum’s facilities. This space is designed to complement the architecture of the existing buildings and enables visitors to circulate from one level to the next, through key exhibition areas, before reaching the outdoor museum.

Learning spaces in the heart of the museum are linked to key archive and collection stores. In addition to the new 630m2 exhibition space, the design maximises woodland views while providing a new shop, facilities and café with fully-serviced kitchen.

Like many museums, St Fagans required vastly different glazing strategies for its visitor areas and its galleries. On the ground floor, the existing structure and glazing-design allows visitors to sit at the café and gaze out at the green, whereas the newly-built exhibition rooms, on the first floor, keep to conservation lighting standards while permitting two, large portrait-framed ‘window slot’ views.

All single-glazed windows in the existing building are upgraded with double-glazed units. Small, original frames built in ‘Crittall’-style glazing, were replicated in size while replaced to meets todays modern performance requirements. Their ‘Hansen Millennium Profiles’ frame boxes handle the heavier bulk of glass while remaining visually delicate and robust in use.

Due to the deep building-plan and its Grade II listing, echoing the existing external courtyard required designing with maximum daylighting in mind. Roof lights surround all sides of the new cantilevered roof, and as the existing concrete structure is at its maximum loading, glazing is suspended off of the roof rather than supported at the base.

Brick selection also had to be carefully considered. The existing, buff, textured, calcium silicate brick was retained and revitalised with a doff clean to remove decades of staining and weathering. A selection of the new brick – a smooth-faced, dark black – contrasts with the existing; not only in colour and texture but also in its bond. Inspiration was drawn from the first Percy Thomas Partnership building at St Fagans, located behind the gallery spaces, to include the new black brick with both Flemish bone and protruding headers arranged in a regular pattern.

Key contributors to the project include Floor Furnishings Ltd and Oscar Acoustics.

Lee Griffiths, Senior Architect at Purcell said: “It has been hugely rewarding for Purcell to have improved the design of Wales’ most popular museum, and one that contributes greatly to the preservation of the national history and culture of Wales. The carefully considered and sensitive design puts the visitor’s experience of St Fagans front-and-centre. I am looking forward to taking my own children to see the finished result.”

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