Architecture: A design fit for a queen

Today, Her Majesty is launching Henley's controversial new River & Rowing museum.
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The Independent Culture
Sleek as an otter in the pouring rain (that is threatening to make the Thames burst its banks), the new River and Rowing museum at Henley is to be launched by the Queen today. When the nearest you come to rowing is pumping iron at the gym, the beautifully crafted boats and barges, and the river itself, could be the big attraction, but alas, apparently not. The bunting may be as bedraggled as the ducks - even the willows are weeping - but nothing can dampen the spirits of this town as it celebrates the reason it is on the map at all - the Royal connection that dates back 159 years to the first Regatta.

The harbour master may have to take a last minute rain check on the motor- launch cavalcade with Her Majesty on board, but the new museum has lift- off 1.5m high above the flooded meadows on 120 concrete pilotis.

Sporting establishments do not come much more established than Henley Royal Regatta. Hemlines may rise or fall as dramatically as the Thames, but stewards at the Henley Royal Regatta steadfastly refuse to pay attention to fashion. Their dress code has not changed for 150 years. Any woman - call them ladies - in a miniskirt is refused entrance to the regatta. Yet the only modern building - by Britain's best young architect, David Chipperfield - the River and Rowing museum, has slipped past the finishing line onto the riverfront to give Henley a landmark for the next 200 years.

Two windowless oak-clad galleries, with pitched roofs like upturned boats, float above a glass ground floor. Chipperfield's building is all about messing about in boats, taking their shape as the inspiration for the vaulted galleries, and turning them upside down so that the hull, high overhead, is bathed in natural light from a narrow seam that runs the length of the pitched roof. Standing inside these light and airy windowless galleries feels like carrying one of these sculling boats to water. In one of the galleries, 40m long, the story of the River Thames is told.

In the other, 62m long, the history of rowing is explored, showing the Saxon log-boat - a hollowed treetrunk, and the world's most expensive mistake, the titanium boat built for the East German Olympics in 1972. Just days before the race, the boat arrived and the team discovered the toeholds were too close to the seat to use. Both these timber-clad sheds, the oak agreeably silvering as it ages, sit side by side, linked by a glass bridge, 4m sky-high, to the third windowless casket that houses Henley memorabilia.

David Chipperfield first sketched the museum 10 years ago as two boathouses, a notion that appealed to the rowers who hit on this jolly wheeze to make a museum at the time. Not having much to put in it didn't cloud their judgement. Get the building and the contents would follow was their reasoning and that's just what happened, even though the lottery turned down their application for pounds 4m. By 1997, the lottery good causes had siphoned off money for museums and English Heritage were tired of handouts to the south- east anyway. "Paragraphs of verbiage" is how the museum chief executive, Jonathan Bryant, dismisses their rejection. Besides, as the memorabilia inside the museum shows, with its picnic hampers and photos of red-faced men in Leander Club pink coats, its boaters and sculls, and sexy swimwear shows, rowing is a bit of a toffs' sport, even though the gin palaces moored in the river along the towpath and beside the pay 'n' display car parks in the meadows tell another story of commuter-belt Henley. Fortunately local businessmen were determined not to let the pounds 17.5m project be scuppered. Martyn Arbib of Perpetual Life Insurance, whose name is on a plaque in the foyer, rallied a trust so well that the Queen is going on to open his new offices as well. They still need to raise another pounds 3.5m to complete the project. In the meantime, David Chipperfield won the competition against the world-renowned Frank Gehry to design the pounds 100m Neues museum in Berlin, that links the Schinkel and the Pergammon Museums. In both museum projects, Chipperfield never lost sight of his original honed-down idea. At Henley, it was a wooden boat shed with a pitched roof.

By not swerving from that single notion and taking on a combative planning authority and local residents fearful of a modern building - "Hitler's bunker" they call it - Chipperfield has made a powerful new museum. One of his strengths as an architect is the ability to take the many strands of the site, its history, the clients' needs, and then weave them together into a monumental building that tells a story without breaking up under pressure.

His witty recognition of the historic site shows in the signage. An oxbow in the Thames is the steel template for the door handles and rails. Swans and ducks and dragonflies and fish file across the transparent glass doors. In the cafe, which faces south not the riverfront, blue blinds on the windows are printed like Waterstone bags with quotes from books, including, of course, the inevitable Three Men in a Boat and Wind in the Willows. I like to think the Queen will enjoy Tom Sharpe's pithy observation from Porterhouse Blue:

"It was good of Her Majesty to give her permission for us to have swan," the Bursar said. "It is a privilege rarely granted."

Chipperfield wanted the museum just to show off boats. But the aptly named Land exhibition designers have installed showcases and put in partition walls, made a jigsaw of the floors with interlocking metal sections and blocked the overhead light for wall projections. Landlubbers that they are, they have taken away the transparency, the fluidity of this watertight museum to give viewer a hands-on experience.

Now, for your pounds 4.95 ticket you can pull against metal oars on a wall with the voiceover of an Olympic cox measuring your efforts to keep in time. You can learn about otter- catching, and water pollution and a rather more tropical Thames when bisons left their jawbones behind 200,000 years ago. It is very popular.

Yet, when this New Age need for a hands-on, interactive New Millennium Experience has faded, this beautiful building, which reflects the Thames in its watery luminous light so much better than the exhibition's screen- projections, will return to being a glorious boat shed.

River & Rowing Museum, Henley, Oxfordshire RG9 1BF (01491 415600)