Analysis: Great Court at the British Museum

The project for the Great Court at the British Museum, London, UK (Foster + Partners, 2000), was an intervention with the objective of re-signifying the pre-existing patio in the British Museum; this court originally housed a garden, but soon after its completion in the mid-nineteenth century it was filled by the round Reading Room and its associated bookstacks, dissociating itself from its original character as a relevant public and meeting space.1

The departure of the British Library was the catalyst for removing the bookstacks and recapturing the courtyard as a new public focus. The Great Court is entered from the Museum’s principal level and connects all the surrounding galleries. Within the space there are information points, a bookshop and café. At its heart is the volume of the Reading Room, now a major exhibition space. Broad staircases encircling the Reading Room lead to a temporary exhibitions gallery and a restaurant terrace. Beneath the courtyard are the Sainsbury African Galleries, an education centre and facilities for schoolchildren.

The glazed canopy that makes all this possible is a fusion of state-of-the-art engineering and economy of form. Its unique geometry is designed to span the irregular gap between the drum of the Reading Room and the courtyard facades, and forms both the primary structure and the framing for the glazing, which is designed to reduce solar gain. As a cultural square, the Court also resonates beyond the confines of the museum, forming a new link in the pedestrian route from the British Library to Covent Garden, the river and the South Bank. To complement this artery, the Museum’s forecourt was restored to form a new civic space. Together with the Great Court, it is a major new amenity for London.2

Relation between the Great Court and the Public Spaces of London

In addition to an analysis of the urban and sociocultural meaning of the intervention, it is, in formal and structural terms,a parametric architecture and therefore it can be analyzed through a series of reading keys, some of which are detailed below.

WIREFRAME: this is a basic concept for the analysis of this architecture, as it forms an undulating volume from a reticulated structural “skeleton”, as described above in a quote to the office responsible for the project.

The Great Court and it’s reticulated structure

MATH: this is a second relevant concept for the analysis of the model, as it is possible to deduce from the observation of the plan, the section and the images of the intervention which would be the rhythm that follows the shape, and which rules would determine it; that is: it could have been generated from a rectangular plane, from which a circle that has the same geometric center as the rectangle was removed, and then the resultant plane was inflated, but somehow maintaining the original location of the edges (a bit like a cake that goes in the oven).

Section of the Great Court
Possible mathematical operations

DISCRETIZE: the Court’s roof is a complex shape, structured by a metallic lattice with variable angles, and the smallest particles of this lattice are not identical to each other:

The roof, plan size measuring 100m x 72m, of curved and semi-symmetrical construction, is centred around a 45m diameter offset dome and consists of a lattice work type structure with glass infill panels. Each structural steel joint (node) is unique in its construction and every individual member has had to be tailor made including the glass panels.3

Despite these particularities, the lattice is essentially formed by a module, that is, the triangle. Thus, it is possible to say that it is reasonable to identify a geometric pattern in this apparently misshapen mesh.

1FOSTER AND PARTNERS. Great Court at the British Museum. London, UK, 2000. Disponível em: Acesso em: 8 out. 2021.


3QUALTER HALL ENGINEERING INFRASTRUCTURE. Project: The British Museum, London – Great Court Roof. London, UK, 2000. Disponível em: Acesso em: 8 out. 2021.

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