Smithfield General Market: the new Museum of London sets out its stall

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Smithfield General Market: the new Museum of London sets out its stall
Stanton Williams’s winning proposal for the new Museum of London

After years of debate surrounding its future, London’s historic Smithfield General Market is to be the new home of the Museum of London. But will the architects chosen last week to redesign the site rise to the challenge?

Sometimes, the sum of dumb decisions can equal a great one.

For at least a decade, the Corporation of London tried to erase or partly erase a group of buildings known as the Smithfield General Market and replace it with commercial development. Part of their motive was to raise enough money to cover their liabilities for maintaining underground railway tunnels that passed underneath, so they and their developer partners stacked up their schemes with as much valuable volume as they could. Those schemes then came crashing down under the scrutiny of two public inquiries.

Historic England (then English Heritage) didn’t cover themselves with glory either, repeatedly failing to get the old buildings listed, which would have settled the argument early on. The upshot of the inquiries, after years lost, money spent on lawyers and abortive designs and the continued decline of the buildings, was that they have to stay after all. The Corporation now had a bigger problem than when they started, which was to find a use for this 25,000 square metres of characterful but awkward space.

Meanwhile, another decision was made which, if not certifiably dumb, gives reason to doubt. This is the plan to build a brand-new and very expensive concert hall, in theory acoustically perfect, at the request of the future music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle. This would go on the current site of the Museum of London, on the edge of the Barbican in the City. It would probably involve, though this detail was dwelt on lightly, a big tower to help pay for the hall and the relocation of the museum. Thanks to the eccentricities of 1960s traffic planning, which insisted that pedestrians be raised on elevated walkways, the museum is absurdly hard to find and enter, and its management would be delighted to move. […]