London-based architects Nex— have completed a large-scale redevelopment programme at the RAF Museum in Hendon. Opening to coincide with the Royal Air Force centenary in 2018, the multi-million-pound project is the realisation of a masterplan by Agence Ter and Nex—, and the result of an international competition win in 2014. The scheme sees the creation of new exhibition and visitor facilities alongside new landscaping that improves visitors’ understanding of the site and the museum’s connections with surrounding communities.
Located on the edge of what was once the London Aerodrome and then RAF Hendon, the 8-hectare site boasts close ties with aviation history. Despite that rich heritage, the RAF Museum needed to reconnect with its local community and the wider public as traditional audiences shrink, and as major new housing developments in the surrounding area become home to a younger, more diverse population.
An ambition to create a high quality public realm informed Agence Ter and Nex—’s approach to the brief and transformation of the site as whole. Establishing the strong focus on landscaping by relocating the car park, landscape architects Agence Ter created a green space at the heart of the museum, reminiscent of its airfield history. The ‘museum field’ not only allows a better understanding of the otherwise disparate group of former military buildings across the site, but also offers an attractive public space within a dense residential neighbourhood, drawing people from the wider community through the museum gates.
Circulation and views through this are now organised along runway-like axes, allowing visitors to traverse the site from edge to edge and thus maximising its spatial potential. A circular ‘taxiway’ connects all exhibition spaces and facilities, encouraging visitors to explore independently and in their own time. A strong emphasis is placed on accessibility, with flat, clearly defined pathways making navigation simple and intuitive. Colourful planting is complemented by fixed seating to encourage visitors and locals to linger.
Set within the green space, Nex—’s largest intervention is the refurbishment of a large-span, single roof Hangar from the 1970s, that has been repurposed as the museum’s new entrance galleries and visitor centre. While the aluminium clad exterior retains its otherwise simple appearance, a dramatic new 40-metre-long entrance with a deep cantilevered roof canopy to shelter crowds’ hints at the drama within.
Home primarily to a huge Sunderland flying boat - an exhibit too fragile to move during construction – Nex— reconfigured the space around this, while focusing on visitors’ understanding and orientation. Removing a brick entrance and restaurant annex resulted in a cleaner exterior geometry and sense of place, and allowed a single access point for the whole site. A functional water tank and pump has been reclad to form a distinct marker at the entrance.
From here visitors enter through tall curtain glazing, and are faced by a new two-storey pavilion structure at the centre of the hangar. Its long elevations are ‘pinched’ to form a welcoming orientation area at the entrance and generous exhibition space on the other side. Clad with louvred aluminium fins reminiscent of jet turbines, these reference the industrial character of the hangar while providing effective acoustic absorption within the enormous space. A crisp and contemporary presence, the pavilion’s central position creates a natural route around it, contrasting the poor circulation of the hangar’s former arrangement and consequently disappointing footfall.
The visitor pavilion contains a range of functions: a shop, café and WCs on the ground floor, with a members’ room and flexible spaces for events and meeting above. These are available for use by local organisations to deliver programmes and activities important to the community. It is fully accessible and offers excellent views across the large-scale aircraft displays throughout the Hangar, from a deep balcony area. Visitors in the event and meeting rooms enjoy oblique views through the angled louvres, maintaining a visual connection with their wider surroundings.
Across the museum field, Nex— have also restored and refurbished a 1930s RAF supplies building to create a spacious and attractive 120-seat visitor restaurant. This has transformed the RAF Museum’s catering offer, allowing the attraction to appeal to new visitors and generate new income. Bringing the previously derelict building back into use was welcomed by Historic England and a key factor in attracting HLF funding for the museum redevelopment.
Inside the immediate sense is of spaciousness, with light flooding in through restored skylights and tall windows on all sides. By incorporating many of the building’s original features – such as the refurbished and exposed steel truss roof, Nex— have retained the building’s historic character, and have even recreated the building’s dilapidated timber office booths to form intimate and private spaces within the otherwise large open plan dining space. This can in turn be subdivided to suit different visitor flows or catering needs, and an overflow dining room, clad in contemporary sawn timber panels, can be used for coach parties of other private groups. An outdoor terrace has been created in response to anticipated visitor need and to further enliven the museum’s landscape.
Nex—’s design delves into RAF heritage, championing the organisation’s colours and providing ‘behind-the-counter’ space to integrate exhibition items into this setting. A graphic horizon line defines the space further, with a clean, airy impression above, and a durable tangle of activity below. To the front of the building, a former loading bay is now a large glazed window signifying the restaurant from afar, while giving the space a decidedly contemporary feel.