A few days ago the London architectural practice Grimshaw completed the restoration of Cutty Sark, the iconic tea clipper that has massively defined British culture and history. The project is located in Greenwich and it involved restoring the vessel’s deck and rigging as well as raising the entire ship three meters above ground, in order to create an underground exhibition space below it. Cutty Sark is on the Core Collection of the National Historic Ships Register, which is equivalent to it being a Grade I listed building. Similarly to most projects that involve historic or symbolic elements, the Cutty Sark restoration has raised a great deal of controversy.
As I have yet to visit the project my opinion can only rely on photographs and I have to say that it looks great from the inside but too bizarre from the outside. The glass canopy is dwarfed by the massive ship and therefore she looks too static and almost asphyxiated. The canopy was installed to protect the lower part of the ship and let visitors walk beneath the hull. Effectively, the ship is used as a roofing element to an interior space that does look striking; observing a ship from such an unusual angle offers a very stirring experience.
Even though the project has received a few praising remarks, which described the design as “sensational”, “simply stunning” as well as “a neatly choreographed landscape of British power”, the general consensus of online comments is rather negative. In The Guardian the project was described as a “bizarre hybrid”, while the editor of Building Design wondered if the ship would have had a nobler end “if the Cutty Sark had sunk”. Also, the editor of Classic Boat magazine described the project as being equivalent with “putting heritage in aspic”. He also suggested that she should have been repaired and sailed around the globe as an ambassador for Britain.
Although conservation groups have in the past criticized the canopy for obscuring the lines of the hull, the negative criticism became thunderous only after the building’s official opening. It is quite peculiar that such strong criticism on the design was not expressed when the drawings of the project were unveiled or before the construction started. One of the great advantages of 3d visualization drawings is that anyone can understand what the building is going to look like, even without knowing how to read architectural drawings.
Therefore it is not only the design of the building that disneyfied a British symbol in order to create a spectacle but its criticism as well. The project had two aims: firstly to respect the history, symbolism and tradition of Cutty Sark and secondly, to use the ship for creating a landmark that would attract visitors. The first aim usually requires discreet and quiet design gestures whereas the second one usually compels flashy and loud ones. When a design successfully combines these two contradicting gestures, it can result in an architectural work of genius. When the combination of the two does not work well then unfortunately they sink the project…