An architectural project falling between the typology of restoration and redevelopment, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court is an architectural and engineering marvel by Foster + Partners. Redeveloped from an original design by Colin St. John Wilson (1970), the Great Court is acclaimed for its tessellated glass roof with an undulating surface.

Queen Elizabeth II Great Court by Norman Foster: At the centre of the British Museum - Sheet1
British Museum Archive. The Great Court as seen from above

Norman Foster and Contemporary Architecture | Queen Elizabeth II Great Court

Norman Foster, a key figure in modern British architecture is known for a brand of architecture that is recognized for its ‘high-tech’ use of structural steel and glass. These two come together to form sleek and ‘modern’ or contemporary structures that are renowned both inside and outside the architecture circle. Foster’s design philosophy also edges around contouring (as can be seen in the Great Court and 30 St. Mary Axe) and interior space management.

Queen Elizabeth II Great Court by Norman Foster: At the centre of the British Museum - Sheet2
ARUP (2004). 30 St. Mary Axe in London. [Photograph].

Design Philosophy

Commissioned by the British Museum Trust, Foster + Partners worked on 13,990 square meters of space that included three new gallery spaces, the Ford Centre, the Clore Centre, the Court cafe, and the Great Court Restaurant. A winning entry from an architectural competition, the Great Court was a structure born out of the need for revising and creating new spaces, within a space. The original design by Robert Smirke envisioned the quadrangle as an open-air courtyard with gardens for promenading. 

Yet as soon as the 20th century, the need for storage space turned the quadrangle, and a newly created copped-domed reading room, into a storage space of sorts. Norman Foster’s design plan was simple; to clear the bookshelves from the Neo-Grecian reading room and the courtyard and repurpose it into an inviting space.

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British Museum Archive. 19th century print of the courtyard. [Photograph].

Conservation, Innovation, and Heritage | Queen Elizabeth II Great Court

Norman Foster’s vision for the built space, meant to give back to the public, the original inner courtyard. His brief attempted to reveal hidden spaces and it did so, in addition to creating new ones. The British Museum is a protected neoclassical building and being such meant that any architectural work had to be one of careful conservation. The rebuilding of any part of the structure meant rebuilding the identity of the museum

Norman Foster’s design intervention had to be sensitive to modern design while also maintaining the intrinsic identity and heritage of the building.

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Norman Foster. Conceptual sectional sketch of the Great Court . [Photograph].

The Great Court Roof

Being an advocate of ‘modern’ or contemporary architecture, Norman Fosters’ innovation came through through the undulated glazed ceiling hovering above the space. The glade canopy acts as an umbrella that fuses the different spaces; the reading room, the cafe, the restaurant, the African galleries, and an education center, into one identity. It is also the largest covered square in Europe, measuring about 2 acres in length.

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Young, Nigel. Tessellating roof above the courtyard. [Photograph].
The overhanging glass cover, designed and built by Austrian specialists Waagner-Biro has a unique geometry that is designed to span the entire breadth of the space. It is a steel lattice constructed from steel box beams joined in a six-way node. In fact, the geometry was designed using a customized form generating program with the tessellating roof containing 3,312 individual panels of glass held together by four miles of steel! 

The geometric canopy spans between the drum of the Reading Room and the roofs of the courtyard buildings both of which serve as the resting places for the canopy while the structure itself is uniquely framed and glazed reducing the solar gain. This was to control the environment in the area given the sensitive library and ethnography galleries. The roof shape is curved to about 165 feet reducing the load on the existing surrounding heritage structures while standing at 26.3 meters above the finished floor at the highest point. 

20 composite steel and concrete columns hidden in the exterior cladding of the Reading Room take the weight of the canopy while also aligning the room’s original cast-iron frame. Norman Foster designed the roof to draw the gaze of the visitor to the principal cause of the ethereal space and perhaps also as a fitting tribute to modern innovation and construction technologies.

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British Museum Archive. Snow above the roof and floodlights. [Photograph].
Queen Elizabeth II Great Court by Norman Foster: At the centre of the British Museum - Sheet7
Young, Nigel. Material continuity in the built space.

The Story of The Reading Room 

The central Reading Room was planned after the original museum had been developed. Under architect Sydney Smirke the reading room was commissioned to be built with brick and steel as a reserve for the large amounts of books from the British Library that had been accumulated. The pantheon-inspired 140 feet domed round structure now played a vital part in the refurbishment of the courtyard under Norman Foster. 

Having a rich history in terms of the books it held and the people who visited it (Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker to name a few), the Reading Room was an iconic structure in its own right, sitting in the center of the Great Court.

Young, Nigel. The Reading Room in conversation with the surrounding space.

The structure had been built out of brick since it wasn’t visible from the outside. To unify it to its surroundings, Foster cladded the drum with limestone. With material continuity now in place, he proceeded to restore the Victorian essence of the interior space with its gold, azure, and cream decorative scheme. Two grand stone staircases were made to encircle the structure making it accessible from the courtyard. A restaurant, a shop, and two galleries. 

The final structure, as it stands now, seems to match the neoclassical impact of the porticos in the courtyard and from some angles even outdoes them. 

British Museum Archive. Reading Room under the skylight.

Beyond Architecture and Innovation | Queen Elizabeth II Great Court

The neoclassical structure was for a long time a forgotten shadow. In all its glory, it was a victim of unfavorable circumstances and suffered in its usage and monumental status. Norman Foster, through his contemporary vision and understanding of the heritage of the structure, turned the lost Great Court into a living breathing space. The sheer beauty of the Greco-roman structures gently resting under a modern steel and glass skylight brings an ethereal emotion to the visitor. 

The Great Court also resonates beyond its boundaries of built space as a cultural icon, attracting millions of people every year under its shade. Merging the old with the new, brought to the horizon, an inspiring story of success in the field of restorative, conservative, and adaptive architecture.

Kennedy, Simon. The glazed ceiling as seen from the Great Court Restaurant.


  1. The Guardian (2020). ‘A lost Space awaiting re-discovery’- how we built the British Museum’s Great Court. [online]. (Last updated 7 Dec 2020) Available at: [Accessed 25 March 2021].
  2. Fosters and Partners (2000). Great Court at the British Museum. [online]. Available at: [Accessed on 25 March 2021].
  3. The British Museum Blog. Everything you ever wanted to know about the Great Court.  [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 March 2021].
  4. The British Museum Blog. The Round reading room at the British Museum. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 26 March 2021].
  5. Choe, Jonathan (2012). Two glass courtyards by Norman Foster. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 26 March 2021].

Adriel is a spatial designer who believes writing about design is just as important as the design itself. He believes that architecture and design are instruments of human expression which ought to be unfolded to enable a deeper connection with our surroundings.