Mathematics: The Winton Gallery, UK

Arup’s lighting scheme for Zaha Hadid Architects’ Mathematics: The Winton Gallery combines dynamic and static lighting to showcase the mathematical significance of the 1929 Handley Page Gugnunc aircraft, connecting complex mathematical ideas to every day experience with a striking visual clarity.

On 8 December 2016 the Science Museum opened an inspirational new mathematics gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA). Mathematics: The Winton Gallery exhibits more than 100 treasures from the Science Museum’s world-class science, technology, engineering and mathematics collections, which have been selected to tell powerful stories about how mathematics has shaped, and been shaped by, some of our most fundamental human concerns – from trade and travel to war, peace, life, death, form and beauty.

Curator Dr David Rooney said: “At its heart this gallery reveals a rich cultural story of human endeavour that has helped transform the world over the last 400 years. Mathematical practice underpins so many aspects of our lives and work, and we hope that bringing together these remarkable stories, people and exhibits will inspire visitors to think about the role of mathematics in a new light.”

Positioned at the centre of the gallery is the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’ aeroplane, built in 1929 for a competition to construct safe aircraft. Ground-breaking aerodynamic research influenced the wing design of this experimental aeroplane, helping to shift public opinion about the safety of flying and to secure the future of the aviation industry. This aeroplane encapsulates the gallery’s overarching theme, illustrating how mathematical practice has helped solve real-world problems and in this instance paved the way for the safe passenger flights that we rely on today.

Mathematics also defines ZHA’s enlightening design for the gallery. Inspired by the Handley Page aircraft, the design is driven by equations of airflow used in the aviation industry. The layout and lines of the gallery represent the air that would have flowed around this historic aircraft in flight, from the positioning of the showcases and benches to the three-dimensional curved surfaces of the central pod structure.

Mathematics: The Winton Gallery is the first permanent public museum exhibition designed by ZHA anywhere in the world. The gallery is also the first of ZHA’s projects to open in the UK since Dame Zaha Hadid’s sudden death in March 2016. The late Dame Hadid first became interested in geometry while studying mathematics at university. Mathematics and geometry have a strong connection with architecture and she continued to examine these relationships throughout each of her projects; with mathematics always central to her work. As Hadid said: “When I was growing up in Iraq, math was an everyday part of life. We would play with math problems just as we would play with pens and paper to draw – math was like sketching.”

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, said: “We were hugely impressed by the ideas and vision of the late Dame Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher when they first presented their design for the new mathematics gallery over two years ago. It was a terrible shock for us all when Dame Zaha died suddenly this year, but I am sure that this gallery will be a lasting tribute to this world-changing architect and provide inspiration for our millions of visitors for many years to come.”

From a beautiful 17th century Islamic astrolabe that uses ancient mathematical techniques to map the night sky, to an early example of the famous Enigma machine, designed to resist even the most advanced mathematical techniques for code breaking during the Second World War, each historic object within the gallery has an important story to tell. Archive photography and film helps to capture these stories, and introduces the wide range of people who made, used or were impacted by each mathematical device or idea.

Visitors will see a box of glass eyes used by Francis Galton in his 1884 Anthropometric Laboratory to help measure the physical characteristics of the British public and develop statistics to support a wider social and political movement he termed ‘eugenics’. On the other side of the gallery is the pioneering Wisard pattern-recognition machine built in 1981 to attempt to re-create the ‘neural networks’ of the brain. This early Artificial Intelligence machine worked, until 1995, on a variety of projects, from banknote recognition to voice analysis, and from foetal growth monitoring in hospitals to covert surveillance for the Home Office.

In close collaboration with ZHA, Arup developed the lighting for the gallery. Arup also provided structural, mechanical, electrical and public health engineering services to the refurbishment of the gallery.

The architectural and lighting concept for the gallery connects complex mathematical ideas to every day experience with a striking visual clarity. Fluid dynamic lighting was integrated with static lighting to showcase the mathematical significance of the 1929 Handley Page Gugnunc aircraft – a key feature of the gallery.

“The lighting design responds to an architectural concept that uses the aircraft’s aerodynamic field as a geometrical generative element. We arranged the lighting around the aircraft to demonstrate this field, starting from the propeller and ending at the walls of the room,’’ explained Giulio Antonutto-Foi, Lead Lighting Designer, Arup.

Arup applied strategic thinking and experience to the project, and focused on creating a memorable space through the use of light. The result is stunning; the lighting depicts a dramatically rendered wind tunnel. Lighting paints the airflow through the space, from the floor, walls and ceiling, to the central turbulence pod. Linear elements of lighting represent the laminar flow and pods represent turbulence.

‘‘Two ceiling recessed spotlights illuminate the airplane propeller, igniting the flow of light,’’ added Antonutto-Foi. ‘‘A number of fixtures are installed in a ceiling cove to create brushes of light on the floor, along the streamlines. The walls represent the boundary condition and show two curvilinear coves; two lines of light moving though the gallery. The central pod is a complex tri-dimensional envelope derived from an equipotential surface around the plane.’’

Arup approached the project with the aim of achieving the highest possible quality, whilst sensitively balancing strict conservation requirements, cost and the use of the latest lighting technology. The team used their in house LightLab to evaluate lighting equipment and details to ensure they could specify and detail with confidence, as well as experiment with various approaches to object lighting.

‘‘The final touch was selecting the right colour for the central sculptural pod. Lit by linear LED concealed along the frame, within the double layer of translucent skin, the hue is asymmetric, to give an impression of movement. The colour was carefully selected in consultation with the design team, and no bleed is visible on the objects exposed,’’ explained Antonutto-Foi. The large lit surface also does not impact the strict conservation requirements of the adjacent objects, some of which are illuminated to 50 lux.

David Harding, Principal Funder of the gallery and Founder and CEO of Winton added: “Mathematics, whilst difficult for many, is incredibly useful. To those with an aptitude for it, it is also beautiful. I’m delighted that this gallery will be both useful and beautiful.”

The free to visit Mathematics: The Winton Gallery has been made possible through an unprecedented donation from long-standing supporters of science, David and Claudia Harding. It has also received generous support from Samsung as Principal Sponsor, MathWorks as Major Sponsor, with additional support from Adrian and Jacqui Beecroft, Iain and Jane Bratchie, the Keniston-Cooper Charitable Trust, Dr Martin Schoernig, Steve Mobbs and Pauline Thomas.

Pic: Luke Hayes