Ambitious plan to transform The Courtauld Institute of Art revealed

The Courtauld Institute of Art has unveiled an ambitious new set of architectural proposals by Witherford Watson Mann Architects for its historic Somerset House premises in central London.

The Stirling Prize-winning practice’s proposal responds to The Courtaulds’s ‘Courtauld Connects’ initiative – a bold project which aims to connect The Courtauld with broader and different audiences, and further connect The Courtauld’s diverse academic and public programmes.

At its core, Courtauld Connects is about people and this is reflected in the wider far-reaching benefits of the project. The architectural changes of Somerset House are just one aspect of Courtauld Connects that also includes the digitization of over one million images, a major new partnership programme with 13 regional organisations and a significant new learning and engagement initiative with schools and local communities in London and across the country.

As part of the newly launched transformation project Witherford Watson Mann’s masterplan will enhance the physical fabric of The Courtauld’s buildings to provide significant public benefits. These include:

  • Additional space for the display of The Courtauld Gallery’s growing permanent collection
  • A new temporary exhibition space
  • The Great Room restored and represented as the culmination of the visitor experience
  • Improved presentation of the collection in the historic Fine Rooms
  • A remodeled entrance that will enable visitors to access The Courtauld Gallery comfortably and will improve general access to Somerset House
  • Improved and enlarged visitor facilities
  • A new Learning Centre which will double the number of school children, families and community groups which can use The Courtauld’s facilities
  • Newly integrated back of house facilities for storage and art handling and improved spaces for The Courtauld’s Department of Conservation and Technology
For the last 25 years, The Courtauld has occupied the Strand Block of the Grade I listed Somerset House, designed by Sir William Chambers and built between 1776 and 1801.Growing student and staff numbers and of the collections themselves over the past 25 years have put significant strain on The Courtauld’s current operations. Visitors’ experience of the building is still constrained by many of the original subdivisions, with the gallery circuit terminating in a dead end, and with forty-two different levels over its seven floors.

The Courtauld’s strategy responds to this. Building on the philosophy and tactics developed at the Whitechapel Gallery and Astley Castle, Witherford Watson Mann’s approach is neither modernising refurbishment nor scholarly reconstruction, but rather balances transformative and restorative action. Working with the ‘deep structure’ of this unusual building, they propose a coherent structure of access and circulation, while working with the grain of rooms.

Four of the original large rooms, subsequently subdivided or altered, will be reinstated to their original scale. In the Great Room – the oldest surviving space for public exhibitions in London – the practice plans to clear the current subdivisions to provide a space for exceptional works. The visitor circuit will take in the symmetry of Chambers’ grand semi-circular stairs and will embrace the Piranesian grandeur of the extensive below ground vaults, where the new interventions will form an enlarged café and a new informal working space for staff and students. The Courtauld’s teaching spaces will receive a thorough upgrade, with more seminar rooms, and more space for the conservation studios and the library.

The Courtauld Connects project will enable The Courtauld to assert its identity as a truly national resource, and in doing so to realize the vision of its founder Samuel Courtauld that art is and must be for all.

Stephen Witherford, Director of Witherford Watson Mann said:

“The goal for Courtauld Connects is not simply to enhance the experience for a wide range of current users, but equally importantly to attract new users through a consistently excellent and accessible experience.”
Professor Deborah Swallow, Märit Rausing Director said:
“We are thrilled to be working on this exciting project with architects Witherford, Watson and Mann -whose work has demonstrated such a deep sympathy for art, for historic buildings, and for the needs of audiences.  We look forward greatly to continuing to work together to reimagine The Courtauld for the 21st century, and to make Samuel Courtauld’s vision of art for all a reality, so that new audiences both here and around the world can benefit from our work and his legacy. This is not just a building project. The transformation will support institutional change, enabling The Courtauld to share with a significantly larger and broader public, its historic building, its world renowned collections, its knowledge and energy to engage others to contribute to the understanding of art.”