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Designing a dedicated venue in the Science Museum – Q&A with architect Mary Duggan

Responding to the ever-increasing demand for an adaptable, high capacity and dedicated daytime space we are opening a brand new, multi-functional events and conference venue – Illuminate – in February 2019. It will enable clients to host almost any type of event – daytime conferences, product launches, exhibitions and awards dinners – using a combination of purpose built, flexible space, alongside our popular museum galleries.

Lead architect on the project is Mary Duggan, who established, co-founded and directed Duggan Morris Architects from 2004-2017 before establishing Mary Duggan Architects in March 2017.  Here, she shares her insights into what it takes to design a space that is set to be a game-changer for the events industry…

Mary Duggan

How did you first become involved? What initially attracted you to the project?

When the Science Museum approached us with this project, we were so excited at the opportunity to work with a world-renowned institution and apply our expertise to this unique brief. We have considerable experience when it comes to designing multi-functional spaces, but the nature of this particular project meant we were faced with designing a facility to accommodate the varied experiences and demands bespoke to the Science Museum’s needs.


What was the brief/inspiration? Is there a story behind the designs?

The initial brief appeared straightforward, citing a need for an event space, kitchen and back of house capacity. What made this unique however were the specific event typologies which the space had to be built to accommodate. The two-levelled area needed to balance storage units with active, usable space, so we relished the challenge of maximising the potential of the area that we were given to work with. Our focus was on creating a jigsaw of co-existing technical functions – designed from scratch – which could fluidly adapt to each scenario.


What did the design process involve?

We were presented with historic drawings which gave a great insight into the raw layout of the space, initially an open atrium that had been structurally converted into two levels. 1970’s-style engineering ensured there was enough support in the structure for a heavily serviced space.

A key issue that we needed to consider from the outset was how the addition of the new space would fit with the rest of the building. We needed to ensure we created a new entrance without interfering with the existing museum galleries, while complementing and enhancing the museum’s capabilities.


How has the initial brief developed to its current state?

The brief has developed by working closely with the Science Museum’s team to ensure we are all on the same page right the way through the process. Neither party wanted too much ‘way-finding’ in the journey, so it helped to have a clear mutual vision for the project from the very start.

The interior did nevertheless naturally evolve to become perfectly intuitive so that anyone stepping into the space could find their feet quickly. By overlaying different layout plans for level 5, we were able to identify the areas that would be used most frequently; for example, a circular area in the centre formed naturally when organising a dinner setup for 250 people. We developed a light, barely-there curtain to encircle this area and avoid the illusion of surplus space around the room, adding in a grey-green floor colour to highlight the area. The same process followed for a conference setup which revealed a natural orientation towards one direction in the room, therefore an additional ‘footprint’ was added to the floor plan to highlight this.

As the space developed, the challenge arose of providing access to both levels of Illuminate. This was resolved by the Science Museum team’s openness to adapting the design and adding an internal staircase, opening up the space’s potential even further and enabling events to take place on both levels simultaneously.


How do you want people to feel when they enter the space? What is the overall mood of the space?

In keeping with the Science Museum’s ethos, we wanted to choose the colour spectrums and patterns in Illuminate based on the science behind them in regards to evoking particular moods.

When people enter the space, we want them to feel the spirit of creation and discovery that the Science Museum showcases. The framework on level 5 has been left exposed, displaying the technical detailing of the logistics proudly rather than succumbing to aesthetics. The space has been created to be practical yet modernistic in style with the light steel staircase, barely-there lightweight curtains, and storage solutions designed specifically to hide every piece of furniture to their exact dimensions.


How does the design reflect the distinction between light and dark?

As the name suggests, the journey between the spaces is a real transition from dark to light. Level 4’s blackout space allows for complete control of lighting, empowering clients to immerse their guests completely in their brand experience. As you move up to Level 5, dark resin floors move to the softer steel staircase and into the brighter space with its panoramic window and abundance of natural light, giving an altogether different feel.


What is your favourite feature of the space?

The panoramic window in Level 5 is of course a major feature. The space previously had only two tiny corner windows, so the expansion of these opened Illuminate up to the daylight and views over London’s skyline.

I also love the carefully mapped system of tracks on the ceiling which allow the curtains to move effortlessly around Illuminate to form new areas and shapes in the space, surrounding 250 people in the centre of the room or opening up to skim the wall lining and reveal the full room. Illuminate as a whole is almost choreographed, with the space’s ‘footprints’ dictating the event thresholds and enabling a clear journey for anyone using the space. Everything has a clear purpose and everything has its place – it’s quite brilliant.


How did you incorporate our Science Museum values into the design?

Illuminate is a visual representation of the Science Museum’s wider ethos, representing the theme of possibility and progression while embodying the notion of advancement in knowledge. It was therefore a key design feature to proudly display exposed components in the space rather than dressing them up, placing the emphasis on innovation and technology.

No area is ‘wasted’ in the space; the cloakroom can extend to accommodate kitchen tables while also designed to house 400 winter coats, when needed. The multi-use capabilities of Illuminate and efficiency of the design ensure the venue is a natural extension of the Science Museum’s existing offering, while bringing something completely new and progressive for the industry.


Illuminate at the Science Museum is set to open 1 February 2019. For more information on hiring Illuminate, contact us here.