After a multi-year, £50 million restoration, interrupted by a near catastrophic fire, the composite clipper ship, Cutty Sark, reopened last April. Not everyone was impressed. Andrew Gilligan, the Telegraph‘s London Editor, called the restoration “a clucking, Grade A, … turkey.” In September, the British architectural trade journal, Building Design, awarded the restoration of the historic tea clipper the 2012 Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building design in Britain. The Victorian Society’s new director Chris Costelloe has opined that it’s a pity that commercial motives were placed above heritage interests.“ Ouch.
While attending the Historical Novel Society 2012 conference in London last week, I spent a few hours crawling through the venerable ship. There is indeed both good news and bad. The bad is primarily related to what happens when the party planners and corporate events schedulers overrule the naval architects and ship restorers. Nevertheless, there are areas where, Andrew Gilligan’s complaints notwithstanding, the ship presentation seems much improved over the previous incarnation.
The primary access to the ship is through a door cut in the starboard side of the ship below the waterline. (As the ship is permanently in dry dock, this isn’t a problem. The old entrance was a hole cut in the side in way of the tween deck, which has since been closed and the structure restored.) You enter on a new deck in the hold of the ship. The deck is laminated with images of tea boxes so that if you have a vivid enough imagination you might imagine that you are walking on the tea cargoes that the ship carried in the early years of her life. For those whose imagination is not quite so vivid there are also stacks of three dimensional tea boxes to give visitors an idea of the size and shape of the cargo for which the ship was designed. The hold is filled with displays about the tea trade and the Cutty Sark, including a video and multimedia projectors displaying information on the hull.
Over all, it is engaging and educational, which is by no means a bad thing. This was my first visit to the ship but I have been told by friends who visited previously that prior to this restoration, below decks had been largely empty except for a display of figureheads lined up on the tween deck. (The figureheads are now displayed on the far end of the drydock wall.) Using the hold space as museum space only makes sense and is not unlike the exhibits on the Star of India and other historic ships.
The original iron frames, braces and beams are all painted white, which stands out nicely against the dark planking and communicates visually the structure of a composite ship, as well demonstrating the extent of the deterioration of the original structure. The new support beams and tie rods to the keel, made necessary by the horrible decision to hang the ship in the air, are evident but not too obvious as they are painted black and blend in a bit.
While the hold is dedicated to the tea trade, the tween deck displays are focused on the wool trade and the ship’s later years. There are large wool bales, as well as photographs, maps and ship models to help flesh out the ship’s history.
Access to the main deck forward is through a metal stair which is glass enclosed on the main deck. A glass enclosed elevator is aft. Andrew Gilligan and other critics have complained about this “shopping–centre–style” access. Their complaints here are over-blown. The day I was there it was raining and the glass both keep the stairs and the tween deck dry and was less intrusive than if the stairway had been an opaque material.
Overall, to my eye, the exhibits and displays below decks were nicely executed, certainly as compared to an empty tween deck and hold guarded by rows of figureheads, as describe to me by friends.
The main deck was also well done. The rigging is new, the varnish on the deck houses is fresh and the deck barely scuffed. Studdingsail spars are in place below the yards, though not rigged, for display purposes. Staysail sheets are secured a bit incongruously to down-haul blocks or to stays, apparently more from a sense of completeness than necessity.
The cabin aft and the cabins in the two deck houses forward of the poop are open to visitors with occasional holographic sailors, which are rather fun.
The tour of the ship is self-guided, which is fortunate as the personnel aboard, while being extremely friendly and eager, knew very little about the ship beyond the basic lists of facts that they all had memorized. One admitted quite spontaneously that she knew almost nothing about rigging that no one aboard did either. When I asked another about the cargo deadweight of tea that the ship carried, I was told that the cargo could make 2 million cups of tea, which is not a standard unit of measurement that I am familiar with.
The souvenir guide book refers to a 600 tonne cargo of tea, while the Wikipedia page says that the ship carried 1450 tons of tea on the same voyage and Lubbock, in his book, “Log of the Cutty Sark,” quotes a cargo deadweight of 1100 tonnes. At least now I have a rough idea of the ship’s capacity, if not an exact figure, which is fine with me.
While there is much good in the new renovation, so too is there bad. Most of the worst features can be traced directly to a single decision. Someone decided that the floor of the drydock would make a wonderful party/corporate events space, if only the ship didn’t get in the way. There is absolutely nothing wrong with building in likely sources of revenue to support the ship financially, however, at some point the planners lost sight of why they were restoring the ship and seemed to focus primarily on the ship as a prop for their party space.
Ellis Woodman, Building Design executive editor and Carbuncle Cup judge, writes:
The scheme’s myriad failings stem from one calamitous choice: the decision to hoist the 154-year-old clipper close to three metres into the air on canted steel props. The Cutty Sark Trust assures us that this very invasive surgery was crucial to the ship’s long-term conservation. Its former dry-docked situation had caused the hull to distort but now, elevated and protected from the elements within a fully air-conditioned glass enclosure, it will supposedly maintain its shape. Historic ship experts have, however, been all but united in their disdain for the strategy. Even the Cutty Sark’s own former chief engineer, Peter Mason, resigned from the project in 2009 after seeing computer simulations that suggested the act of lifting would put a dangerous level of stress on the fabric.
The ship is effectively being hung in the air by the tween deck. Massive steel columns act as thrust bars from the drydock to the ship, connecting to new beams and girders beneath the tween deck and tied to the keel with tie rods. If the former keel blocking had caused deformation of the hull, one can only image what this sort of suspension might do.
Apart from any damage that hanging the ship in the air might cause the ship’s structure, the upward angled struts make the glass enclosure around the ship into a shallow dome that partially hides the ship’s hull The ship seems to be sitting on a glass dog pillow obscuring the ship’s graceful lines. Some have compared the structure to a poorly designed bus terminal built around the ship. Then adding insult to injury, a massive rectangular structure has been dropped next to the ship which houses another elevator and HVAC equipment. The combined effect is to dramatically distract from the ship itself.
And what benefit has been created by hanging the ship in the air under the ugly and oversized glass greenhouse? Only time will tell if it becomes a major events space which will help finance the Cutty Sark’s future. Right now, the only thing under the ship is a rather sad cafe, serving sandwiches and chips to patrons who eat on formica tables while sitting in blue plastic chairs under the keel and rudder of the mighty clipper ship. The juxtaposition is jarring.
In the end I agree, in part, with all sides of the discussion. The Cutty Sark of today is, no doubt, an improvement of the pre-renovation ship. I never visited the ship prior to her renovation but based on what friends tell me, the ship is more interesting and educational now than it was before. That being said, the hoisting of the ship in the air by her tween deck and the construction of the ugly glass greenhouse over the structure seems uniquely ill-advised.