The Cutty Sark epitomises two great British love affairs: sailing and tea. Built in 1869, it is the last of the tea clippers, streamlined sailing ships which raced from China to London to bring the new season’s tea to market.
Last month, the Cutty Sark reopened as a museum at its dry dock in the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site after a £50m overhaul by architecture practice Grimshaw and engineering firm Buro Happold.
Part of the project involved repairing substantial damage from when a fire ripped through its wooden structure in 2007 while an earlier restoration project was underway. The fire prompted renewed public interest in the ship and initiated a fundraising campaign that made this more ambitious project possible, but the unusual way the ship is now displayed has not been to everyone’s taste.
As well as raising the Cutty Sark, figuratively speaking, from the ashes, Grimshaw has raised it literally, too, hoisting the 963-tonne vessel three metres above its concrete berth so that, for the first time, visitors can walk underneath it. The space created beneath the ship has been transformed into a venue which will host corporate events, bringing in revenue that Grimshaw says is essential if the project is to be commercially viable.
The new space allows visitors to admire the awesome sleekness of the ship’s composite iron and timber hull, a hydrodynamic design that let the Cutty Sark slice through water at amazing speeds. With consummate attention to detail, Grimshaw has also replicated the hull’s original coating of muntz metal, a brass alloy which repelled barnacles to make the ship even faster.
Lifting the Cutty Sark required the installation of an internal steel structure, which carries the ship’s weight and is anchored to the concrete berth by 24 external struts. This structure also incorporates an elevated walkway which conveys visitors from ground level into the Cutty Sark’s hold deck. A glass canopy, designed to evoke water, envelopes the ship at its highest waterline and provides a roof for the venue below.
Criticism of the project has tended to focus on this unambiguously modern glass structure. Some have suggested that the glass, which is not transparent enough to see through from a distance, means the ship’s hull is no longer visible from outside. But Chris Nash, a partner at Grimshaw and himself a keen sailor, refutes this. ‘What you see above the glass is actually what you used to see above the dry berth. All that’s inside the glass is the part of the hull that was not visible before,’ he says.
According to Nash, raising the ship was also vital for conservation. ‘A ship is designed to be supported in water,’ he says, ‘but the Cutty Sark has been resting on its keel for 50 years, meaning the hull was gradually sagging. By lifting the ship with the new skeleton we were able to replicate the load conditions of a ship floating in water and allow the hull to return to its original shape.’ A 1998 survey by the Three Quays Marine Services supports this view, concluding that if nothing was done to conserve the structure it would become unsafe within a decade.
Purists who have baulked at the glass enclosure will perhaps be more approving of the ship’s interior, whose painstaking restoration involved the removal of 540 of the original hardwood hull planks, each of which was treated for damage and decay before being reattached to the ship. The wrought-iron ribs that support the hull were also treated and replaced where necessary. New and old are clearly distinguished, with the original ironwork painted white and the new steel structure in grey. The story of the ship is told on the ‘tween deck (the middle of the three decks) with interactive exhibits, designed by Designmap, that are sure to keep busloads of schoolchildren amused for years to come.
Architects with Grimshaw’s experience know that taking on a public heritage project such as this can be a double-edged sword: you’re bound to get your name in the papers, but you may not always like what you read. ‘That can be a problem,’ says Nash, ‘but it’s something we’re used to. We’ve done many prominent public projects and you do your best; you do things for the right reasons and you hope that people will appreciate that.’
It is early days, but Grimshaw believes this innovative way of displaying the Cutty Sark will set a benchmark for how historic ships are preserved in the future. And what it offers visitors is a new perspective on one of the best-preserved examples