A grand classical-looking building facing onto Lincolns Inn Fields conceals a totally revamped interior with a huge new floor to ceiling atrium. This is the Royal College of Surgeons headquarters which hasn’t been revamped but entirely rebuilt behind its stone facade.
To assuage the howls of protest I can feel welling up already about this desecration, while the front of the building is indeed the original, most of what was behind it is now in its third regeneration and wasn’t historic at all.
The building was constructed in 1899 to a design by Sir Charles Barry, but within 40 years what he built was already being rebuilt. WW2 destroyed most of the building, aided by the fact that the medical specimens in the large Hunterian Museum were stored in alcohol adding fuel to the bombing raids.
It took until the mid-1950s to rebuild the College, retaining the facade, but replacing the rubble behind, and the shrunken but still substantial Hunterian Museum was placed on the first floor. Over the past few years though, that 1950s interior has been replaced with a 2020s interior.
Going in through the grand frontage, the 1899 front is retained about a room’s depth before it opens up into the modern space. Apart from replacing the shallow and rather Victorian-feeling entrance with the modern atrium, they’ve also knocked all the way through to the back of the building, replacing a blank brick wall with a modern facade that also includes a new entrance from that side of the building as well, which will also become the new entrance to the museum.
A new side staircase replicates the old grand staircase and is lined with portraits, and leads up to the first floor where the old library remains in place above the entrance and has now been given a refresh. New lighting and fire safety are hidden in the ceiling, but they’ve also stripped back the old carpet and cleaned the old floorboards.
The central atrium is filled with stairs, or you can use the lift, but an interesting effect is how they’ve tried to clean up the back of the 1899 facade which now faces into the atrium. After trying to remove the plaster cladding over the brick, it turned out to be very solid plaster, more like concrete, and very difficult to remove, so there’s a rather appealing patchwork of brick and plaster left on a floor-to-ceiling wall. Running all the way up are busts of former important people, and bronze busts are very heavy, so what looks like a simple shelf conceals a lot of reinforcing on the other side of the wall to hold it in place.
I often feel that apart from the grand flourish of the architecture, it’s often the smaller details that matter more as they show how much thinking went into the design. I particularly liked the alignment of screws on the staircase bannisters to drill in different locations so that they lined up vertically on a sloping surface.
Apart from offices lining the back of the building, there’s an event room at the very top with good views over nearby buildings, and the curious dome structure that lets light into the top of the staircase in the LSE Library.
There are also reception rooms at the front, and here they’ve pulled back the former mansard wall to create a narrow walkway at the very top of the building with some impressive views over Lincolns Inn Fields and the local area. One of the more interesting rooms though is to one side which looks pretty old, but is also at the very top of a modern building. In fact, the wood panelling was rescued from houses that used to be on the site before the College arrived, and having moved around a bit, they’re now in this room creating a Georgian looking space that comes with a view.
Of course, the spaces can be hired for events.
While most of us won’t have a reason to go to the upper floors, many of us will be able to stand on the ground floor and look up, as the Hunterian Museum will reopen early next year, and the building will be open to the public once more.
The work was carried out by Hawkins\Brown, and the site access was part of the London Festival of Architecture.