Landmarks: The Natural History Museum

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The Independent Culture
The building I am particularly interested in is the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, built by Alfred Waterhouse in 1874. It is a 19th-century terracotta cathedral that pays homage to the natural world.

The outside is highly decorative, incorporating gargoyles and statues and has a slightly Romanesque feel with its semicircular arches. It has a symmetrical facade with two central towers and pavilions which all have ornamental spires on the top, evoking the image of an early cathedral. Across the whole of the building Waterhouse has created a hierarchy of detail using terracotta mouldings, with live animals on one side and extinct ones on the other. There are monkeys, for instance, moulded in such intricate detail as to show their individual expressions.

The use of terracotta inside the building is also extremely interesting. The tiles, hollow blocks and sculpture were all being manufactured as a basic kit and the idea was to obtain the equivalent of a modern fast-track cladding system that would be cost effective. This idea is further illustrated in the wrought-iron framing on the semicircular vault within the main hall, for while being an efficient use of available technology it is also really quite decorative. It is this balance that makes it so exciting.

I think the keepers at the time worried that the grandeur of the architecture was somehow competing with the collections. That problem still occurs. Nowadays museums are designed to be much more deferential but the Natural History Museum cannot possibly play that kind of game. It has to be seen in the context of the 1880s as an exhibit in its own right.

Peter Richards is a partner with Cecil Denny Highton, Westminster.

(Photograph omitted)