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The U-Boat House, Birkenhead

Part 1 Project 2010
Tom Harden
University of Sheffield, UK
The setting was Birkenhead’s topography of towering monoliths and heavy engineering, which punctuates the fabric of the city with such vastness as to be almost completely scaleless, but for the conventional structures around them. Cooling stacks, towers, shipping warehouses and the entrances to underground motorways make up the dramatic landscape within which a U-Boat museum is to be placed.

The U-Boat itself represents an era of conflict and destruction; it was an unseen terror laden with menace. But beached on land, poorly reconstructed with fiberglass and cut up into pieces, this potency and threat is neutralised. The project therefore reimagines the U-Boat’s recent history, keeping it whole, unrestored and as it was when pulled from the sea bed. A visitor’s relationship to the boat would not simply be one of observing passively but would instead be far more visceral, an experience enabled by the controlled environment the submarine is kept in. Rust and decay open up the possibility of the exhibit changing and gradually dying, allowing the vessel to rest at last.

The macro scale of displaying the full power of the U-Boat in the context of Birkenhead’s edifices is contrasted with the micro scale problem of displaying tiny, intensely personal objects found within the bowels of the boat. Acupuncture needles, diaries, shoes, a beer bottle; these are intense knots of human experience, and more than anything else offer a glimpse into an underwater world over sixty years ago. They are as fragile as they are small, and might be lost next to the iron mass of the submarine. They are therefore removed, and displayed in the close confines of a suspended timber gallery, a complete contrast to the heavy, industrial architecture of the rest of the building, but one that suits these human objects.

The scale discrepancy offered by the context of Birkenhead, with it’s cooling towers sitting next to brick vernacular, is thus mirrored in the building, with boat and object: a sequence of scales from that of industrial urban to barely visible needle.

Tom Harden


This project, sited within the dockside area of Birkenhead, proposes a setting for the display of U-534, a type type1XC/40 German U-boat, together with associated artefacts found within it. The response was informed by a clear attitude to the nature, scale, meaning and conservation of both u-boat and artefacts, and a recognition of typology, scale, and skyline inherent in the dockland context.

The outcome is a strong and simple, yet sophisticated proposal where material and spatial enclosures respond to the exhibits housed within them, come together to create a coherent architecture in which the viewer’s experience (of drama and intimacy) is heightened, and form an appropriately strong addition to a wide and challenging urban context.

The project as a whole is characterised by a consistency of intellectual and architectural approach, from concept to formal and technological resolution, and has been developed through simultaneous exploration and testing in model and drawings. These powerfully depict U-534 and associated artefacts within their new setting, and the building within its broader context.

Overall, Tom’s work was awarded a 1st class degree and his output is testament to his engagement, commitment and bold but rigorous approach to the subject.

Tutor(s)

Mr Satwinder Samra
2010
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