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Building A Room For London

Building A Room For London


Constructing, installing and collaborating on A Room for London - here's a behind the scenes insight into how it happened.

Building A Room For London

Having won the competition to design A Room for London, the immediate question for architect David Kohn, collaborator Fiona Banner, as well as commissioners Living Architecture and Artangel was, how should the boat be made? Should the Room For London be an actual boat, an existing boat; something that resembled a boat, as in a stage set?

Experienced project manager Alex McLennan had the job of translating the design into reality. That meant not only helping develop a detailed design but also putting together a team of contractors, engineers and specialists, and dealing with the myriad logistical challenges of the project.  He agreed that the structure should be as genuinely boat-like as possible. But he was not in favour of reconditioning an existing boat. “From an engineering point of view it was totally unfeasible,” McLennan says. “Boats are made to go in the water. They don't like being taken out for any length of time and they don't like you cutting holes in the side of them. And most boats are working things: they're not insulated, they're not that comfortable.” Added to which, on further investigation, the cost of hiring a crane large enough to hoist a structure out of the Thames and onto the Southbank Centre roof turned out to be astronomical. 

The only realistic way to build the Room For London, all parties eventually agreed, was with a steel frame, clad in timber. Apart from the fact that it would not actually go in the water, the structure still had to perform like a boat. It had to be mobile, strong and lightweight, compact and practical in its layout, durable to the elements and comfortable inside.

The Room For London would have to be assembled off-site and brought in by road, but there are limits to the dimensions of loads transported on British roads without incurring huge extra costs. That determined the measurements of the steel frame. The structure would still have to be lifted into place by crane, which meant finding a crane contractor to take it on, and getting a crane into the relevant position, which in turn meant negotiating with the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery and other parties. Scores of logistical challenges needed to be solved.

Fortunately one of the most crucial components of the project was an easier challenge: the people who would actually build the Room For London. Millimetre were then a young, Sussex-based company with a track record of realising large-scale artworks, architectural installations and unusual structures, from Rachel Whiteread's House, for Artangel, to the ornate canopy of the Royal Barge for the Diamond Jubilee. Millimetre's founders were all trained designers, rather than construction professionals, and the firm was accustomed to working with imaginative, creative people and complex, experimental projects.

Due to all the delays during the design phase, Millimetre's schedule was extremely tight, however. The steel frame around which the Room For London would be constructed was manufactured in Plymouth, then brought to a barn Millimetre had found in Sussex, big enough to spread out the three components of the structure – the hull, the upper-storey library section and the wind turbine/steeple structure – and work on them simultaneously. They finally finished at 3am on the 13th of December, four hours before Living Architecture came to collect it.

It wasn't over yet, though. The final challenge was to get the Roi Des Belges down to London and onto the Southbank roof. Alex McLennan had surveyed the route from Sussex to London, and even removed a few low-hanging branches en route. He'd also been monitoring the weather for the past month. Having been up on the Queen Elizabeth Hall roof a great deal by this stage, he knew the wind coming up from the river could get dangerously strong. The boat would have to be lifted more than 20 metres up, then swung 17 metres laterally to get it into position on the roof. If the wind was too strong, the lift could not take place. McLennan had checked with the Met Office and learned that three storm fronts were approaching London in the time period allocated for the lift. There was just one potentially clear day in the midst of them. 

 A 350-tonne truck-mounted crane had been hired for that day, the largest ever seen on the South Bank. Just to prepare for the crane, bollards had to be removed and three layers of aluminium tracks laid to avoid damaging the road beneath. The boat had arrived the night before. The crane could lift a maximum of 20 tonnes. The weight of hull section came in just under. The press had come down to watch the lift but they had a long wait. It takes two hours just to load the crane truck with ballast before it can even begin to lift. To everyone's relief, the hull section went up smoothly, but before the upper library section could be hoisted, the wind picked up to 20 or 30 knots.

It was also getting dark. The crane operator could not lift it until the wind died down – possibly later that night. By now, McLennan and Robinson were making calculations of how much more it was going to cost them. The crane was not cheap to hire for the day. It was booked for somewhere else the next day. Overtime rates were about to kick in. Then, as the two men were on the roof preparing some lights, the upper section of the boat suddenly appeared before them, dangling in the air. The crane operator had gauged a sudden drop in the wind and lifted it while he had the chance – no time to consult anybody.

 It might never have seen the water, but the Roi Des Belges had defied the elements. A Room For London had arrived.

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