Taking together archaeology, artifact installation, and contemporary art commissions, London Mithraeum invites visitors to encounter a spectacular showcase of history that recounts the mystery of the ancient cult of Mithras that once worshipped in the ancient city of Londinium.
World Architecture & Design Awards 2019
Third Award | Category: Cultural
Architects: Wendy Joseph
Studio: Studio Joseph
Team: Architect: Studio Joseph; Prime: Local Projects; Architect-of-record: Foster + Partners; Structural Engineer: AKT II; M/E/P Engineer: Sweco AB; Theatrical Lighting Design: Matthew Schreiber; Architectural Lighting Design: Tillotson Design Associates; Media Design: Local Projects; Construction Manager: Sir Robert McAlpine; Archaeology Consultant: Museum of London Archaeology
Country: United States
Buried below London’s city streets for two millennia, a Roman Temple of Mithras was discovered in the 1950s as London removed the rubble after the World War II Blitz. The ruin was moved to an adjacent site until the property’s recent owner in collaboration with the Museum of London Archeology reinstalled the temple ruin in the lower levels of their headquarters as part of a three-story museum. The installation includes some of the other 17,000 artifacts discovered during the excavations for the new building. Now, one of London’s most prized archeological findings returns to the site of its original discovery with a cultural space that reimagines the ways we engage with ancient Roman empire artifacts.
The entry floor houses a contemporary art gallery with an archival vitrine displaying over 600 Roman artifacts that serves as the museum portal to exhibits below. In a reference to classical architectural façade motifs, a topography of pyramidal forms showcases mounted artifacts. The collection comprises significant archaeological discoveries including many personal affects, architectural details, pottery, glass, and the first ever written reference to a Roman business transaction engraved onto a wood writing tablet. Visitors descend a cascading staircase flanked with etched granite walls depicting stratigraphy— the rock layers of history ranging from Ancient Roman streets to modern day elevation.
At the mezzanine level, scholarly information which is paired with 3D rendered facsimiles of temple artifacts: the head of the god Mithras, along with scaled depictions of the altar relief, and the temple ruin. These recreations are cast via digital scans of actual artifacts and rendered in translucent resin. They pair with interactive stations that sit against a backdrop of dramatic animations and evocative audio narration recounting the story of the Mithras cult. As contemporary scholars describe ancient scenes, projected figures magically emerge from the shadows into the light. Together, these elements offer a deeper anthropological and societal context for the artifacts.
Moving to lowest level, visitors encounter a darkened room of the temple ruins reassembled accurately. Walls of light rise over the temple’s foundation remnants recreating the three-dimensional volume of the original Mithraeum. A “haze” of glycol and water solution—never-before used in a permanent installation—fills the space, rendering light visible. To create the vertical surfaces of light, the low voltage fixtures project horizontally above the ceiling plane to a series of mirrors and refining apertures to increase the density, concentrating the beams. The temple altar consists of five layers of water-jet-cut steel in the shape of the Mithras slaying a bull—each layer cantilevered so that every silhouette is illuminated. The sounds of water, chanting, music, and fire create a mysterious encounter with the past, mirroring the enigmatic nature of the Mithras cult.