RRM@21 – 4: Modeling the Museum

River & Rowing Museum in 1998. Photo: Jaap Oepkes.

22 February 2019

By Chris Dodd 

In the River & Rowing Museum’s 22nd year, founder Chris Dodd relished the creative process in the hothouse of the architect’s office.

Martyn Arbib

It was in 1994 that the RRM Foundation attracted financial backing from Martyn Arbib, founder of the Perpetual investment house. Martyn’s generosity enabled us to pay David Chipperfield for his design and light the blue touch paper to build. There was an awkward moment when Martyn queried the engagement of a fancy architect when a design-and-build contractor such as that used for Perpetual’s new offices would have cost less, but David gave such a robust account of his approach to design that Martyn hailed him as a champion.

As the building was refined and the piles began to go down into our plot on Mill water Meadows, which until then was the town council’s overflow car park and road grit store, the creative team held frequent meetings at Chipperfield’s office in Camden Town. Architects, curators and designers came and went, including Jane Bowen and Emily Leach from the museum, James Dibble from exhibition designers Land, Alan Fletcher the graphics wizard from Pentagram and its offshoot Atelier, and Victor Bugg the quantity surveyor. We conducted a perpetual seminar, fuelled by the excitement of being in at the birth of Chipperfield’s first whole building in his home country.

Attending Chipperfield’s office and glimpsing other schemes in the pipeline was inspirational itself at a time when the architects’ tools consisted of sketches and models. For this firm, computerized walk-throughs were a phenomenon of the future.

The downside of living by models is the space they take up. One day there was a skip outside the office when I arrived for a meeting, and models of buildings flew out of the door into it. My timing was perfect as two three-dimension depictions of the RRM glided into my arms, including, I think, the very first. They are now in the RRM collection. Today, walk-throughs of buildings are projected on big Macs at Sir David Chipperfield’s offices round the world. I’m glad that our iconic building caught the era of models.

Towards the end of the process, we talked about catchy names for our baby – River & Rowing Museum was a working title, and somehow didn’t have the ring of V&A about it. When somebody blurted out ‘Museum-on-Thames’ there was immediate, unanimous acceptance. We dispersed and put the name to the committees of volunteers for rowing, river and Henley, all of which liked the idea. But somewhere down the line, Museum-on-Thames met flak, and it was never adopted. The working title prevailed. After 21 years, the River & Rowing Museum is almost mature enough to be known as the RRM.

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