An Interview With Stephen Witherford of Witherford Watson Mann Architects
Stepping off Strand sits The Courtauld within the compounds of the more widely known Somerset House. The Courtauld is an internationally renowned centre for the teaching and research of art history and a major public gallery. Its public gallery is best known to hold an impressive art collection focused on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. The Courtauld has recently undergone a two-year refurbishment, a major one after moving into the Somerset House in 1989; three-fifths of the entire refurbishment project was completed in November 2021. The completed areas so far include the new exhibition galleries, new ground floor visitor reception, new staircase, new lower ground floor reception space, and upgrade of the conservation studios and education studios for The Courtauld’s students.
Witherford Watson Mann Architects is a London-based skilled studio of twenty led by Stephen Witherford, Christopher Watson and William Mann. The studio most notably won the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize for its distinctive entwining of past and present in Astley Castle for the Landmark Trust. I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Witherford from Witherford Watson Mann Architects, the Lead Director on the project who kindly shared his insights on working with the inherited Sir William Chambers’ compositions, the design sensibilities in working with a historical building, persuading and gaining support from the client, and other challenges that were part of the journey in completing one of two parts of The Courtauld’s refurbishment.
The Courtauld’s Refurbishment - The Day of Institutionally and Physically Being One is Finally In Sight
Can you briefly introduce The Courtauld and when you and your team at Witherford Watson Mann Architects started working with the organisation?
Around 2013, we originally started working with one of the departments in The Courtauld. We were asked to look at creating a small gallery on the mezzanine, a dedicated space to show the Prints and Drawings collections.
Whilst we were working on that project, in the background, was the beginning of the masterplanning process for the whole of The Courtauld. The masterplan of The Courtauld eventually went to a public tender in 2014. When that happened, we were finishing the small gallery and we thought we'd have a go at pitching for the larger project.
For the public tender that you mentioned, what was the process like?
It was an open tender - the European Framework tender, so any practice within the European Union could apply. There was a process of reducing those applications down to a shortlist. From then on, it was a focused small design competition; there was an interview process and a series of stages down to the final stage. In the final stage, three practices had a second interview and the winner was selected from that in the summer of 2014.
It sounds like that small project led to a larger opportunity.
That's right, which is interesting because when you undertake a large project, sometimes the best way to understand what it might be is to carry out a pilot project.
On some of the projects we've done, we would make a small part of the project first to test out the idea, particularly if it was an urban strategy. We might work on a small part, see how that works, learn from this insight and then weave that knowledge back into the design of the larger project. On The Courtauld, we started with the pilot project without knowing it was going to be a pilot, but now we can see that it was very influential on how we thought about the bigger project.
“On The Courtauld, we started with the pilot project without knowing it was going to be a pilot, but now we can see that it was very influential on how we thought about the bigger project.
- Stephen Witherford, Lead Director for The Courtauld’s Refurbishment
The space itself is quite complex. When walking through the publicly accessible spaces, it is not immediately clear which part is new and which part is old. To me, that's also its success because it means everything has been integrated really well. Can you share one or two of your favourite spaces in Phase I?
First of all, it is important to say that we won the project to masterplan the whole of The Courtauld. Our scheme has always focused on a single vision to be delivered in two phases. The thinking, the briefing, the planning application, and the listed building application are for one project that was divided into two parts. We have delivered three-fifths of the project, what you refer to as Phase I. Phase I dealt with what we call the Strand Block, which is the central part of Chambers’ North Wing at the Somerset House.
There were two parts, which for me and probably for us, were the most challenging. They were probably also the two pivotal parts of the project. The project sought to break down, both institutionally and physically within the building, a series of obstructions that prevented the different departments and activities from coming together. Most visitors previously wouldn't have known that there was a world-leading conservation department or it wouldn't be unusual for people not to know there was an art history university on the other side of a wall because there would be very little contact or knowledge of that. Most people would only have known the collection of fantastic paintings, drawings and artefacts. This project sought to pull the departments into a set of relationships where they could intermingle more and also allow visitors to understand the other activities that The Courtauld undertakes more than they might now.
The project sought to break down, both institutionally and physically within the building a series of obstructions that prevented the different departments and activities from coming together.
- Stephen Witherford, Lead Director for The Courtauld’s Refurbishment
The two parts of the project which most enabled that to happen were tunneling through the lower ground vaults, which were originally use for storing coal; then creating two new galleries on the second floor, which bridge across and connect the East and the West staircases. By bridging across the second floor and tunneling through the vaults at the lower ground level, we have created two primary connections between the two historic staircases; a new circuit that allowed the rooms adjacent to the staircases to be accessible to many more visitors, students and staff. I'd say that these were the most challenging interventions because they’ve had the most extensive engineering, the most extensive servicing, and the most architecturally challenging to reconcile the new with the existing architecture.
These kinds of moments where you create opportunities for the conservation or education studio to be more upfront to public visitors, how did you try to understand that as an architect?
We had to be briefed and also run workshops with all the different departments at The Courtauld. Back to what I said originally - it was one project which covered all the activities of The Courtauld. There were representatives from all the different departments that we sat down and worked with. We talked about how they did what they did, and how they might be able to do it differently - more purposefully or to a higher level of ambition if they had different sorts of spaces.
Besides that, we also had experiences going to exhibitions around London. I recall very vividly an exhibition at the Tate Modern called the ‘Mark Rothko’s Late Works’. The Conservation Department at the Tate had done a lot of forensic work trying to understand how Rothko had applied paint to get those very blurred edges. I just remember seeing queues of people wanting to see that part of the exhibition on the painting techniques and the conservation work. I guess that gives you confidence in knowing that some people go with a friend just to see the paintings and some people are really interested in the technique of paintings. There's a huge interest in it - it's a different insight.
What I feel is really beautiful about The Courtauld is that it looks at art history through both an academic lens and direct encounters with original works in the Collection. It always had collections of paintings, drawings and prints from which students could experience an emotional connection with works. It also had conservation studies in the technical department to provide a different insight into how works are made, the processes, the materials and their cultural context when each painting was made.
Even things like the trade routes where certain pigments came into availability in Europe; certain pigments were more expensive so they had a higher value, which elevated a painting’s status. There's a whole cultural context for materials. Through its staff and students, The Courtauld can offer this unique insight to its visitors, which is different from other institutions.