The Saatchi Gallery’s move to the former Royal Military Asylum in Chelsea gives a new lease of life to an evocative building, finds David Littlefield.
There is a wonderful drawing in the new Saatchi Gallery, now installed within a former military building near Sloane Square. The drawing consists of a shadow gap, just a centimetre in height, that wends its way along the floor edges – a dark line that describes the plan of the building and which is hard to ignore once your eye has settled on it. It’s like a map of the building at one-to-one scale.
This neat little shadow is important because it traces the outlines of the original spaces in this former army boarding school. Completed in 1803 as the Royal Military Asylum, the central building consisted of very large rooms, four on each floor, providing dining halls and classrooms for 250 war orphans (wings to either side provided dormitories). A century ago, the school moved elsewhere and the building, renamed the Duke of York’s Headquarters, became the base of the Territorial Army and sundry other military units. This imposing edifice, designed by Soane pupil John Sanders, barely changed externally, but on the inside it was systematically knocked about, subdivided and otherwise treated with as little sensitivity as possible. It also suffered at the hands of the Luftwaffe, leading to the replacement of the timber and slate roof with a steel and clay tile affair.
In 1998, when the Ministry of Defence sold the Duke of York’s barracks to local landowner the Cadogan Estate, its centrepiece was a sorry mess. Paul Davis & Partners (PD&P) was appointed masterplanner of the 4.4 hectare site, and began a phased development including residential and commercial uses and comprising both new and existing buildings. The refurbishment of this building completes the third phase. PD&P began the clean up, scratching away until the architects discovered something of the fabric and vastness of Sanders’ original structure. It was a place of scars and traces, of bricked-up fireplaces, of devil-may-care openings. Marks revealed the position of tiered seating and missing mezzanines where boys and girls (segregated, of course) sat for lessons.
After PD&P secured planning permission to convert the building into category A offices, which included the addition of a large extension at the rear, Cadogan identified Sotheby’s as a potential tenant. Those large spaces began to be considered as auction rooms, and PD&P’s plans were resubmitted with that in mind. Sotheby’s eventually lost interest, and the building came to the attention of Charles Saatchi who had employed Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and property agents Pilcher Hershman to find a new home for his art collection. When the deal was struck in 2005, Cadogan retained PD&P while Saatchi retained AHMM. It is not always easy to see where the work of one practice begins and the other ends. ‘The entire interior is AHMM’, says Simon Allford, who gives PD&P credit for the building’s conservation, the design of the extension and a new circulation core. ‘Saatchi didn’t employ us to do a paint job’. Paul Davis describes the role of his practice as ‘obtaining planning consent for the gallery, the design and realisation of the exterior and the majority of the internal spaces, all based on a previous scheme designed by PD&P for Sotheby’s,’ but excludes ‘the gallery ceilings, gallery lighting, gallery flooring, and some internal alterations to the base scheme for which AHMM is the architect.’ Such is the way in which proposals have been developed in parallel for this building, and the owner’s interests reconciled with those of the tenant, that both practices are able to lay claim to important elements of the design.
Perhaps most important, the Duke of York’s Headquarters is now a building of large spaces again, although the massive scale of many artworks in Saatchi’s collection has the effect of reducing them. The scars, though, are hidden behind the cosmetics of plasterboard. There are really two buildings here. There is the building as seen from the King’s Road, a grand, self-important, pedimented institution. And then there is the interior – a series of white spaces; the sash windows have mysteriously disappeared; arches have been squared off; there is a minimum of fuss and no extraneous detail. The inside and the outside bear very little relation to each other. Saatchi, with the help of AHMM, has got a building which provides an impeccably neutral, ‘white cube’ backdrop for his collection.
It has been interesting to watch the slow migration of the Saatchi collection across the city. It began in an old warehouse on Boundary Road, north London, found and converted by Max Gordon. There, the artworks were surrounded by the texture of the historic structure. The gallery’s next base was at London’s County Hall, which also offered itself as a building to be reckoned with; partly thanks to RHWL’s fit-out, one was always aware of the architecture. Apart from the size, shape and whopping four-metre height of the original spaces, the interior of the new gallery offers little original context. Once you’ve crossed its threshold, little of the surviving historic fabric – except the central staircases – has not been covered up.
In the gallery spaces on the ground and first floors, ceiling panels of stretched fabric by Barrisol over Erco luminaires emit a bright, even light; the floors are composed of white-stained timber lengths which run right across the rooms. Everything, apart from that cheeky shadow gap, has been calculated to direct the visitor’s gaze and present the art with as little distraction as possible. It is highly effective; colours shout louder and texture appears more abrasive within these astonishingly pure spaces. In contrast, the upper floors of both the original building and its extension are animated by the exposed steel roof structures and all the ventilation paraphernalia running through them. Painted white, of course. It’s as if the straitjacket has been loosened; something of the building itself is revealed and the Duke of York’s is allowed to join the conversation. Through the clutter a sense of human scale is added to the experience of being there. Which work best depends on how you like your art.
The new Saatchi Gallery – large enough to be worth a special visit but small enough to see without becoming exhausted – is a fascinating place. Expertly rescued and skillfully wrapped; both Paul Davis & Partners and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris deserve credit.
The Duke of York’s building is among the spaces covered in Architectural Voices: Listening to Old Buildings by David Littlefield and Saskia Lewis.
Chelsea’s demilitarized zone
The Duke of York’s Headquarters is part of a former barracks on the King’s Road in Chelsea. The site became available following a strategic review by the Ministry of Defence. A scheme for the four hectare site by Paul Davis & Partners received planning permission in December 1999. The first phase of a three-phase construction schedule completed in 2003 and comprised office, retail and leisure facilities, private and affordable residential accommodation, a running track for a nearby private school and a series of interconnected public spaces. The largest of these, Duke of York’s Square, was the first new public square in the West End for more than a century.
Encompassing the southernmost part of the site, the second phase completed in 2006 and includes a medical facility, housing, a new private school in the listed Cavalry House and an unconventional office in a converted vehicle servicing building south of the running track. It also included a car park, providing spaces for residents in the phase one flats and the 47 residential units completed as both new build and conversions in phase three. The most prominent and interesting building on the site – the Duke of York’s Headquarters – was the last to be converted. The design of its extension continues the architectural language established in the phase one developments.
Project team – basebuild
Architect: Paul Davis & Partners; Alec Howard, John Griffiths, Ciara Gormley, Natalie Lewis, Mark Barlow, Jim Clark, Jane Pringle, Marina Bianchi, John Roberts, Gayle Monaghan, Carron Windle, Mike Whelan, Mike Wynn Jones; external lighting: DPA Lighting; landscape architect: Robert Myers Associates; m&e engineer: EEP, Gratte Bros, WSP; qs: Trevor Patrick Partnership; structural engineer: Adams Kara Taylor; contractor: Sir Robert McAlpine; client: The Cadogan Estate.
Project team – gallery fit-out
Architect: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris; design team: Simon Allford, Jolanta Dzikwoska, Jonathan Hall, Ian McArdle, Paul Monaghan, Peter Morris, Karl Normanton, Alexa Ratcliffe, Anna Vallius; contractor: Knight Harwood; qs: Jackson Coles; structural, m&e engineer: Arup; lighting engineer: Erco; client: Saatchi Gallery.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Blocks: Tarmac Hemelite; bricks: Wienerburger Smeed Dean London Stock; concrete: Realtime; curtain wall: Technal MXGD; decorator: H&S Decorating Specialist; drylining; MPG; glass: Birchdale Glass; insulation: Kingspan; interior lighting: Kreon, Erco; joinery: Ellmers, Touchwood, Walter Smith Joinery, Calan Point Contracts, MJ Hillson; louvres: McKenzie Martin, Levolux; paints: Dulux, Crown; plasterboard, suspended and acoustic ceilings: British Gypsum, Danoline; reconstituted stone: Kingstone; roofing: T&P Roofing; roof slates: Burlington Slate; render: Sto; secondary glazing: Selectaglaze; steel: Elstead Engineering; stretch ceiling fabric: Barrisol; structural glazing: MPG Facades, Birchdale; timber flooring: Bausen, Dinesen.
AT192/October 08 p30.