When the architects at the British firm Grimshaw won the contract to restore the Cutty Sark, they were taking on a national treasure. The last and greatest of the tea clippers, the ship, now berthed in London, is a matchless monument to the Age of Sail. Launched in 1869, she was then among the fastest sailing ships afloat, designed to carry tea from China at a time when speed to market was crucial. And not only was she quick, she was elegant and innovative, too. With the sleek lines of a modern racing yacht, her wooden hull, measuring 84 by 11 meters (275 by 36 feet), concealed ribs of iron. “I have worked on some big projects in the past, but this one was unique,” says Diane Metcalfe, an associate director at Grimshaw, who helped to oversee the project until its completion this year.

The ship, a masterpiece of 19th-century construction, was showing her age by the 1990s. Since 1954, she had sat in a dry dock next to the Thames in Greenwich, open to the public. Planks were rotting, corrosion had destroyed much of the iron frame, and the ship was slowly bulging out of shape. Restoration was vital, but meeting the brief of the vessel’s owners, the Cutty Sark Trust, was no easy task. Space at the site was tight, yet the trust wanted better access and more facilities for retail and exhibition space. Compounding the problem was the ship’s acutely sensitive location, right next to Sir Christopher Wren’s Old Royal Naval College at the heart of a World Heritage Site.

Grimshaw’s solution was bold. A new steel-and-glass-diagrid canopy envelopes the Cutty Sark, meeting the hull of the ship at what was once the waterline, and continuing down to encompass a new entrance and retail spaces. To relieve stress on the ship’s structure and to redistribute the load, the team worked closely with engineers from Buro Happold, and devised a system of supports: The vessel now rests on 12 triangular steel frames—formed from horizontal beams and diagonal ties—shaped like inverted coat hangers, inserted through the hull. These frames carry the weight of the Cutty Sark’s keel and mast back up to new external support points.

A new access tower beside the ship (which also contains elevators and restroom facilities) directs the flow of visitors from the main entrance through the lower cargo deck at the ship’s stern up onto the main deck. From there, visitors proceed to the concrete dry-berth, a space under the ship left over as the result of raising and suspending the Cutty Sark 3 meters (9.8 feet) off the ground (see “Tool Box: Raising the Cutty Sark”). This move provides 1,000 square meters (10,764 square feet) beneath the ship on the dry dock’s floor for use as a café, exhibition space, and corporate entertaining.

Work began in 2004, but a fire three years later set the restoration back several months. (Thank­fully, the damage was limited). When Queen Elizabeth II finally reopened the Cutty Sark to the public this April, the restoration results were spectacular. For the first time, visitors can walk beneath—and touch—the ship’s hull, reclad in dazzling Muntz metal, a gold-colored alloy of copper and zinc. “It’s a cathedral-like space,” Metcalfe says. “It still gives me goose bumps just to go down there.”

Inevitably, the £50 million ($81.2 million) reimagining of the landmark has resulted in divided opinion. Some say the glass canopy obscures the view of the hull, and that raising the ship above ground has robbed it of its nautical character; the interior is less controversial, and many say it is a fitting tribute to a national treasure. Love it or hate it, the project ensures the survival of a relic from England’s great naval history for at least another 50 years, when it may be time to revisit the Cutty Sark again.

Cutty Sark Restoration Project

Project Cutty Sark Restoration Project, London
Client/Owner Cutty Sark Trust
Architect Grimshaw, London—Chris Nash (partner); Diane Metcalfe (associate director); Den Farnworth, Jorrin Ten-Have (project architects); Joe Laslett (architect)
Mechanical Engineer WSP Group
Structural Engineer Buro Happold
Electrical Engineer WSP Group
Civil Engineer Buro Happold
Construction Manager Gardiner & Theobald
General Contractor Ellmer Construction
Structural Steelwork S H Structures
Secondary Steelwork General Metal Constructions
Access Tower Cladding Vitrine Systems
Mechanical/Electrical Lorne Stewart
Substructures J Coffey Construction
Elevators Apollo Lifts
Size 6,150 square meters gross internal floor area (66,198 square feet)
Cost £50 million ($81.2 million)

Materials and Sources

Ceilings SAS International sasint.co.uk
Flooring Dalsouple (rubber floor) dalsouple.com
Glass Seele (main canopy) seele.com; Vitrine Systems (Access tower cladding) vitrinesystems.co.uk
Insulation Celotex Insulation celotex.co.uk
Metal General Metal Construction (architectural metalwork) gmcgroup.co.uk; KME (Tecu Brass, Access tower cladding) www.kme.com
Paints and Finishes Leighs Paints www.leighspaints.com; British Gypsum www.british-gypsum.com
Roofing Kalzip www.kalzip.com
Structural System S H Structures shstructures.com
Walls Hanson Thermalite heidelbergcement.com
Windows, Curtainwalls, and Doors Leaderflush Shapland leaderflushshapland.co.uk