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North Atlantic Duel: Museum and Memorial, U-boat U534, Birkenhead Docks

Part 1 Project 2012
Matthew Pearson
University of Sheffield, UK
This research and design study proposes a setting for the display of U534, a rare surviving German U-boat given to the people of Birkenhead in recognition of the sacrifices made in breaking the North Atlantic blockade during World War II. The museum is sited on the quayside of Alfred Dock, part of the giant complex of Victorian docks built along the Great Float across the Mersey from Liverpool. The scheme draws on the history of the docks, connecting the merchant ships and community of Merseyside with the German U-boats operating in the North Atlantic during the war. The proposal reconciles these conflicting sides through a kinetic structure that performs a dual function of museum and memorial.

Four large museum drums exhibit different aspects of the U-boat (machine, home, ship and weapon) with each one affording a view into a section of the segmented U-boat and displaying the artefacts recovered from within it. Daily at dusk the sections of the U-boat, held on large rotating posts rooted in the dock itself, slowly turn to piece together U534 and form a memorial to the multitude of civilian lives lost aboard locally based ships which were sunk by U-boats in the North Atlantic.

The duality of ideas is a concept explored in many aspects of the design. Scale and space both change with time and purpose. In daytime the confined exhibition drums provide an immersive insight into the enclosed and complex world of the submariner. In contrast the massive scale of the reconstructed U-boat, silhouetted against the night sky, responds to the expansive context and conveys the scale of threat it once posed.

In form and movement, the new building pays homage to the giant industrial machines built by Victorian Engineers; the cranes, the massive lock gates, the Bascule bridges and giant winches that towed boats across the docks en-route to the North Atlantic. Simultaneously, the rusting hull of the U-boat and the steel memorial plates resonate with a now derelict and windswept docklands and remind us of the terrors and heroes of a never-to-be-forgotten war.

Matthew Pearson


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