Great Britain celebrated the new millennium with a flourish, constructing ambitious buildings across the land, but the most impressive achievement may have been the transformation of the British Museum, London’s most popular and prestigious institution. Foster + Partners restored the inner facades of the central courtyard and the circular reading room it encloses, bridging the two with a glass roof to turn the open space into a soaring atrium. Foster also designed a restaurant on an elliptical terrace that wraps around the upper level of the reading room. But the museum chose to update and redesign the Great Court restaurant and awarded the commission to Benugo, a company that operates restaurants in other cultural institutions, and the London design firm of Softroom.
The goal was to make the space more relaxed, inviting, and varied to appeal to visitors of every age and taste throughout the day. “The previous environment seemed rather chilly, even intimidating,” says Fiona Ryan, the marketing manager for Benugo, which also received the commission for six other food outlets in the museum. Softroom was a logical choice because it had collaborated with Benugo on a restaurant in a decorative arts museum in Bath. Christopher Bagot, who co-founded Softroom in 1995, rose to the challenge. “We’ve created restaurants in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Albert Hall, so we aren’t overawed by working on a large scale in listed buildings,” he explains. “We feel we can bring something new that will enhance them.”
Creating an indoor piazza
Softroom’s big design moves included the creation of a single central entrance, animating the space by opening up the kitchen and giving it a sense of warmth and intimacy while exploiting the spectacular views. Softroom called for the installation of white fabric canopies to shade the tables on rare days when the sun beats down, while providing a sense of enclosure and absorbing sound. A single color, Knoll’s Aegean blue—an appropriate choice for a Greek Revival building—was implemented for the upholstery of banquettes and both high and low chairs.
The designers wanted to add golden tiles in the bar and the kitchen, but the planning authority insisted that they stay with Foster’s neutral palette of whites and grays. However, they enriched that sobriety with limestone, silver-glazed tiling, and marble mosaic flooring. And they varied the uniformity of the seating, creating four zones, each with a distinct character. Classic bentwood armchairs, first produced by Thonet when the museum was newly built, provide a flavor of a Viennese cafe, and their rounded backs echo the tall windows that offer views down into the newly restored reading room. Other diners can sit at the bar or enjoy the bustle of the kitchen for a quick snack or afternoon tea.
“The Great Court resembles a classical piazza, and I wanted people to feel as though they were sitting under an umbrella in St. Mark’s Square and being a part of the space,” Bagot says. On a fine day, the illusion of being transported to Italy is convincing, and at night the spell is intensified. While the restaurant relies on the ambient lighting in the ceiling vault—Softroom was not allowed to incorporate lighting into the canopies—standard lamps can be brought in when the restaurant hosts evening events or is rented out for a reception.
Reaching consensus through compromise
The new design of Great Court had to satisfy the museum, the planning authorities, and English Heritage, which is the official custodian of historic monuments. Design decisions were heavily scrutinized. For example, Bagot wanted to cut away the canopies to reveal more of the glass roof, but that proposal was rejected. “It took three years to achieve general agreement on the design and bring it to completion. Things that are fixed are subject to planning permission, so we left contentious
items, such as the banquettes, freestanding,” Bagot says.
However, Softroom has achieved most of what it set out to do, adding another layer to the spatial complexity and restrained architecture of this glorious indoor piazza.
Great Court Restaurant
Client: Benugo, for the British Museum
What: 4,850 square feet on one floor
Cost/sf: Withheld at client’s request