By Edwin Heathcote
Architects Journal, 26.07.07
It always surprises me that since Brian O'Doherty's superb 'Inside the White Cube', published in Artforum and then as a book in the late 1970s, there hasn't been another serious attempt to analyse the building type which has arguably been driving architecture and its public profile more than any other.
From the found space of the lofts in New York's Chelsea and at Tate Modern to the self-conscious icons of the globetrotting superstars, building art galleries has become a tool for regeneration; for urban branding; for reconnecting to the history of the city's fabric. Galleries are a kind of universal panacea, free from criticism (because art, as we know, is always a good thing); free from a broader social agenda; free to indulge in elitism in a way in which no building type can.
Yet apart from the emergence of the super-gallery - wonderful buildings like the Bilbao Guggenheim or Museum of Modern Art, New York, which paradoxically fail to fulfil their brief to effectively display art - galleries remain very much where O'Doherty left them. There is still the found space, the industrial shell reconfigured to accommodate the most robust contemporary sculpture and installation. And there is still the purist white space, the sanitised temple to the contemporary sacred relic in which nothing must interfere with the holy of holies, the supposed neutrality of which O'Doherty exposed as nonsense.
It is rather wonderful then to visit a little group of buildings which sit in the shabby no-man's land between two of London's most painfully trendy bits, Islington and Hoxton. This ensemble, which embraces Victoria Miro's old and new gallery and the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art, tells the whole story (bar thankfully, the icons). And tells it fluently, effortlessly and convincingly. Art, you will think after seeing these spaces, doesn't need any new typologies, it's doing fine with these.
The newest addition to the ensemble sits above the old industrial brick building which houses the much-admired Parasol Unit. The mongrel lineage of a conception by east London-based Claudio Silvestrin and an execution by Michael Drain, it seems, like many mongrels, sharper and brighter than it may have been as a thoroughbred. It is an astonishing gallery space, a brilliantly lit volume which seems to evoke the focused, grounded and slightly eccentric Modernism of Portugal more than it does the fussy minimalism of England or the trying-too-hard boho-chic of New York.
However, it needs to be seen in the context of the ensemble because this is nothing like a self-contained gallery. Conceived as a private space for Victoria Miro to display her art and show VIP clients around, it is partly the result of her devastating losses from the 2004 Momart warehouse fire, a reaction to off-site storage. The new gallery must be entered through the original gallery at number 16 Wharf Road, a superb earlier conversion by Trevor Horne which exposed latticework of the timber ceiling structure, through which the glazed roof is seen - creating a hugely complex picture of a view usually only found in derelict structures. Once the visitor has gone through the old gallery the eccentric journey takes you out to a decked garden at the rear which backs on to a spur of the Regents Canal and back in via Parasol Unit.
That gallery, designed by Michael Drain for the not-for-profit art foundation, opened two years ago and exemplifies the finer end of the found-space approach. Rusty columns rise from an exquisitely polished concrete floor, and the chamfered-concrete beams and columns are exposed and whited out again. It is among the least intrusive and most accommodating of contemporary art spaces in the city.
It is the next step, though, that has been most surprising. The new gallery is reached by a hugely theatrical 72-step staircase ascending six long flights along virtually the whole of the side of the plot. Contained within an oppressively narrow (850mm) shaft, with no handrail, the staircase sucks you up towards the light over an extraordinary 10m height. It is something halfway between the films of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger and Aldo Rossi, a powerfully surprising injection of Baroque intention into the minimalist body.
The stairs deposit you into a lofty and impressive gallery space dominated by raking views over the city. The ceiling is 6m high, allowing flexibility in hanging, and a simple, central spine rooflight ensures an even distribution of daylight throughout the plan. But it is the expansive window atop the stair vista that draws the eye. Using 5.5m-high glass panels the architect creates an awesome picture of the sky in which only the bottom fraction is dominated by the building fabric that seems so dense a few floors below. The view is seamless thanks to the external cantilevered deck terminating in structural low-iron glass panels capped at waist height by a slender strip of dark anodised aluminium.
The overwhelming emphasis on the view ensures that you are always aware of the city as background to the art - the gallery provides its own context beyond the whiteness of the walls. In this, the ambition seems to be more redolent of a public gallery, a civic building with a remit to make that connection between context and object, rather than the more traditionally neutral private gallery, the firm intention of which is internalisation and the focus on the object for sale. It also opens up the interior to the exigencies of the London sky and the dramatic changes in light.
The gallery opens out on to a deep balcony, intended as a space for receptions and events held against the backdrop of east London - the roofs that shelter the highest density of artists in Europe, as we're so often told.
At one level above the gallery sits a small private office and library adjacent to another large clerestory opening, a composition somewhere in the vein of Tony Fretton taking a holiday in 1980s Spain. Just beyond the office is one of the building's key gestures, a large Ian Hamilton Finlay neon work (The Seas Leaves the Strawberries Waves) which sits in a tall atrium and is clearly visible to the city beyond through that window. It gives off a cool blue glow, an arty butcher's-store fly-trap and an intriguing motif as the building fades into twilight.
The atrium is the most architecturally complex space in the building, not a raumplan device of creating interest and variety through intersection but rather the point at which everything becomes clear and the plan clicks into place. The high white walls and the continuous dark, oiled wenge flooring create a seductive but slightly disorientating effect, a seamlessness which makes you lose your position in the space so that you begin to rely on the skyline and glimpses of the atrium for orientation. Everything that places you is attenuated, super-sized.
When I initially approached the building I barely registered this huge two-storey box sitting atop the brick structure. Whether it was due to the neutral tone of the render melding into the grey of the sky or because I was rapt by the juxtaposition of a drive-in McDonalds next door, its golden arches providing a wonderfully Pop foreground, I don't know. But on my way out I looked more carefully, and was profoundly surprised. A gentle S-curve partially overhangs the street, coolly emphasising the separateness of the structure without making a big deal of it. This is a subtle and unobtrusive addition despite its size. Around the corner the south-facing balcony is sheltered by a canopy faced in bronze-anodised aluminium (which the handrail/balustrade cap had alluded to).
From both outside and in there is a paradoxical quality to the gallery. This is an extremely complex and competent sectional building of a type rarely found in Britain. The more you look, the more you are intrigued and impressed. Yet at almost every point the space you are in seems simple and serene. It is exactly the way it should be, complexity allowing not contradiction but concentration. If I had any criticism it would be that, after those complex spatial games, the elements resolve themselves almost too readily, too completely. Every opening seems to line up perfectly with everything else, a slit in the wall segues into a rooflight, the impossibly slender mullions line up exactly at a single point at the bottom of the stairs to give the impression of an unframed, open sky. A few slight discontinuities may just have brought a little more emphasis to key moments. The building is, though, admirably but not anally detailed throughout and, although is lacks the toughness of Drain's earlier gallery for the Parasol downstairs, it looks to the scraggy local rooftops and the infinite variety of the shifting clouds and light to bring life into its heart.
There is probably nothing new here. The section is fascinating, the journey through the building is eccentric, he views and the mechanics involved in creating the openings to allow them are formidable, the lighting is good, but it has all been done with a lightness of touch and a skill which belies the youth of Drain's practice. This is not a radical gallery; it adds little to the debate about the politics of found space versus the white cube other than a juxtaposition which allows you to judge the typologies side-by-side in an identical urban condition. But as big as the artist institutions continue to conceive ever more outlandish architectural logos, it does show what can be done with an ambitious and thoughtful client and a blend of architectural and cultural intelligence.