No. 38 . 14 February 2001 
ArchitectureWeek
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Foster and Partners Roof the Great Court

by Don Barker

Until recently, the neoclassical British Museum in London was relatively unknown among the monuments of Europe. However, the opening of its Foster and Partners-designed Queen Elizabeth II Great Court has awakened a sleeping giant.

This refurbishment can best be described as a fusion of conservation and innovation, merging old with new, to finally open up the museum to a new and admiring public.

In 1823, architect Robert Smirke was commissioned to design a building in London to house the King's Library and to provide a proper home for the museum's collections. It took some 24 years to build.

The original museum had four principal wings arranged around an open, two-acre (0.8-hectare), quadrangle-shaped courtyard. No sooner had the British Museum been completed in 1857 than a growing demand for storage space dictated that a new copper-domed reading room be built in the middle of the courtyard.

The great Round Reading Room became a popular haven, used by such luminaries as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Oscar Wilde, Leon Trotsky, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and Virginia Woolf.

In Woolf's, A Room of One's Own, she wrote, "If the truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, ...is truth?" Despite its popularity, the dome-shaped room became overrun with books and museum artifacts, and, over the years, the courtyard was lost to the public eye.  

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