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The Euston Road School of Drug- Dealing

Welcome to the Wellcome Collection . . .

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: July, 2007
If you've never seen a live organ transplant or a whale's heart

Surfing the wave of architectural salvage projects currently breaking across London it becomes possible to identify a few of the more public peaks and troughs. Some renovations are revelations (yes, I actually like the expanded and rebranded BFI Southbank complete with new mediatheque designed by David Adjaye). Others leave you wondering why they bothered to retain the blueprint (feint murmur of a Bon Jovi soundtrack as the supposedly temporary structure of the Millennium Dome switches names to O2 and keeps a corner of the circus tent free for future super casino status regardless of the new Prime Minister's controversial pronouncements). The remainder of the projects sit somewhere in-between (like the sterilized revamp of the legendary Roundhouse), usually ensuring that improved facilities and easier access –signifying more functioning toilets and a few less steps - are reinforced by franchised cash registers ready to log your pin-number for targeted mail-outs (the Royal Festival Hall affect).

For me, the high point of the recently opened new 'old' buildings is the redevelopment of the elegant neoclassical block originally built by Septimus Warwick on Euston Road that houses the extraordinary Wellcome Collection. And that's not solely because it's the closest to my own front door. Michael Hopkins and Partners have connected Warwick's 1930s structure to their newly built Gibbs Building which operates as the official Wellcome Trust HQ. Inside the older building what had become a maze of partitioned offices and corridors has been transformed into a light and airy contemporary space that allows the original building to breathe again. Alongside the libraries, caf?© and bookshop, Hopkins and Partners have also created a series of galleries in which selections from Sir Henry Wellcome's mind-bendingly eclectic collection of a million medical art and artifacts can be juxtaposed with contemporary work responsive to the prevailing Wellcome agenda of suturing the cultural split between art and science through the performative role of medicine.

Perhaps inevitably, given architecture's haphazardly prescient recycling of existing material conditions, Septimus Warwick had already played the role of renovator when updating Robert Smirke's Canada House in Trafalgar Square back in the 1920s. Warwick's alleged Masonic connections and his mysterious involvement in the hieroglyphic coding of the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg seems ripe for some kind of quasi-Hawksmoor conspiracy narrative. A multimillionaire Mr Pharmacist and ?ºber-philanthropist, Henry Wellcome commissioned Warwick to build the Euston Road premises to house not just medical research laboratories but also a sculpture court and exhibition spaces in which his collection could be accessed by the public. It is a fitting tribute to one of Britain's greatest and most bizarre collectors that the building has been returned to this function. Entrance is free to all the exhibitions. Featuring uncanny memento mori and ritualistic objects from every continent, mummified bodies and magical manuscripts, sacrificial knives and amputation saws, ye olde chastity belts and Victorian sex aids, Darwin's skull-topped walking-stick and Nelson's razor, an indestructible 4 foot jelly baby and a DNa-sequencing robot, a malarial map of the world made from mosquitoes . . . the list of exhibits goes on and on. The opening show in the ground-floor gallery focuses on the Heart. If you've never seen a whale's heart or watched a live transplant operation then the Wellcome Collection finally offers you just such an opportunity.

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Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London

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