The V&A's Simon Sainsbury Gallery (Room 64b) is affectionately known as the 'Daylit Gallery' due to the wealth of natural light it receives from its translucent, wave-like roof. This space was originally an outdoor void between buildings, providing daylight and a utility area – but no means for displaying objects. The light-well was overlooked by the windows of the Secretariat block, once the home of the Government's Department of Science and Art and staff offices. During the V&A's FuturePlan transformation, this rarely used outdoor area was reconfigured into an exciting, practical gallery space.
In 1909, the galleries in the south-east corner of the South Kensington site were isolated and lacked cohesion with the rest of the Museum. Designed by Aston Webb, the buildings had been commissioned nearly 20 years before, but their construction was delayed. In the intervening years, Webb continued to alter his original plans, but the final product met with a mixed reception. The awkward level changes and vast courts provided difficult layouts for curators and staff to navigate. Over the years, rooms were sub-divided into offices and windows were blocked up to provide more wall space.
In 2002, as part of the V&A's ambitious FuturePlan programme, the Museum commissioned emerging architectural practice MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects) to redesign this space. Today the area has been transformed into ten new gallery spaces, which house the Museum's Medieval and Renaissance collections, and the Daylit Gallery.
Visitors can meander through Webb's two giant courts, one arranged by MUMA as if it were a Renaissance courtyard space and the other as the nave of a church. These spaces house everything from an original carved marble balustrade (balcony) made for the Palazzo Pola in Treviso around 1490, to the facade of a timber house from 1600 that survived the Great Fire of London. Frameless glass-top display cases, designed with German manufacturer Glasbau Hahn, provide an uninterrupted view of smaller precious items.
Architecturally, the showpiece of the redesigned space is the Daylit Gallery's sunny atrium, formed by the modern, semicircular glass roof over the former light-well. The Daylit Gallery ceiling uses glass beams or 'fins' to support the glazing. From below it gives the sensation of a completely transparent ceiling, but as visitors climb into the higher levels of the four-storey atrium, the cloudy glass fins give the structure a varied and undulating feel.
The architectural changes elegantly allow the objects to take centre stage. By removing one of Webb's original marble staircases, the project has opened up the interior, providing easy circulation routes between the different zones of the Museum. While natural light pours into the Daylit Gallery, other areas containing light-sensitive items have had their skylights modified to reduce or redirect the light onto the walls rather than the objects themselves. The result is contemplative and harmonious – giving the visitor a sense of walking among spiritual settings.