Projects: A history lesson at Westminster Abbey

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How do you design an extension that can live up to the heritage of the coronation place of kings and queens for the last thousand years?

In recent years, the Palace of Westminster has hogged the limelight when it comes to the refurbishment of landmark historic buildings around Parliament Square. But an even older and more sacred institution right next door has also been undergoing a major 21st-century upgrade. 

Westminster Abbey is one of the world’s most famous religious buildings and is a venerated spiritual seat for more than 85 million Anglicans around the globe. But while the abbey may be well over a thousand years old, it has just received its first new architectural addition in 273 years. 

The Weston Tower has been designed by the practice of Ptolemy Dean, the current incumbent of the ancient role of surveyor to the fabric of the abbey. The tower, which is named after a major donor, contains a staircase and a lift, providing external access to the new Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. This is a new exhibition space in the abbey, designed by McInnes Usher McKnight Architects (MUMA). 

The exhibition space is located 16m above the nave floor in the abbey’s medieval triforium, a wondrous, previously hidden void above the vaulted arches of the abbey’s aisles and below its clerestory windows. The combined project cost £22.9m to build, which was met entirely by private donors and trusts. 

The project is historically significant for a host of reasons, not least the fact that Dean’s new tower is the first external addition to the abbey since the completion of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s west towers in 1745. Westminster Abbey is a grade I-listed building and part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is also one of Europe’s finest examples of gothic religious architecture and presents an incomparable fusion of the French gothic and English decorated gothic styles. 

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