The West Wingdevelopment forms part of the Somerset House (listed Grade I) refurbishment master plan, completing the final opening up of the three sides of ‘The Edward J. SafraFountain Courts’ to the public. The Trust’s aim was to create a viable cultural & arts centre by renting out the upper floors & mid basement to creative industries (offices, meeting & conference facilities), whilst the ground level isdedicated to a diverse public cultural programme (exhibition, galleries, retail & events in the Fountain Court).
The lasttenant, HMRC, relocated leaving the interior in a dilapidated condition. The Trust took this opportunity to upgrade the entire interior, including improvements in circulation. In its original configuration Sir William Chambers introduced two splendid staircases at the pivotal west / east intersection: the Nelson & Salt staircases. The 1960’s remodelling of the north entrance contained only a crude institutional staircase (no lift), was difficult to use, not DDA compliant & certainly not worthy of the Trustees future vision. Strategically, the entrance was the only location where the division between new functions could occur without serious alteration to the historic building fabric.
Various studies were undertaken to establish the ideal location for the staircase &lift. It was concluded the most efficient arrangement was to extendthe existing staircase shaft into the smallest of non-lettable spaces, dictating the necessity for a compact circular stair with the lift positioned in the original staircase location,creatingopen & naturally lit lobbies at each level.
The interplay between the historic & contemporary architectural features is purposely used throughout. In the existing context of the open ground floor reception you are drawn to the new glazed lift, the spaceopening up to the sculptural drama of the staircase ‘floating’ in space with historic features silhouetted in the background.
The stair is seen as three distinct elements dissolving from the uniform lattice mast which commences with the lit reflective basement and finishing with thecrown at the top.The interplay of materials, ever changing fluid forms & light naturally draws your focus to the outer edges of the building, where the clear glass balustrade allows you to focus on the historic gallery of windows mouldings, floor lines & through to ‘The New Wing’ beyond.
The treads / landings are made from ‘Ductal FO’ reminiscent of the stone used in the building, a special ultra-high performance concrete 3x as strongas ordinary structural concrete, originally developed for use in harsh marine & industrial environments. To the team its aesthetic properties, placidity in casting & surface finish(porcelain in appearance) provided the perfect material for sculpting to a minimum, pushing its qualities to the limits.
It allows very slender complex 3D shapes free of reinforcement; although due to site restrictions a modular (104 treads rising 17.15m in height) assembly with a special jointing system was developed. A 4D computer programme was employed to analyse the structure (3 spatial dimensions plus time) to establish how the stair would change over its intended life.
All in all, the principles in Chambers famous ‘Nelson Staircase’ of canterlevered stone flights from the stairwell wall were turned inside out as it is largely self-supporting & does not touch the historic walls.This project was only made possible due to the history & setting of Somerset House, & a Client who believed the team would provide anoutstanding solution to their future vision.