The latest addition to the White Cube stable of galleries is very large indeed, but architect Casper Mueller Kneer has excercised careful control over all the details, finds Giles Reid. Photos: Paul Riddle.

Square footage is a powerful signifier, particularly for an art gallery. The first White Cube in St James’s, London (1993-2000), was a 40 square foot room. White Cube Hoxton Square opened in 2000 with 9,500 square feet. White Cube Mason’s Yard opened in 2006 with 11,900 square feet. White Cube Bermondsey Street opened during the Frieze art fair in October. It’s got 58,000 square feet (the site is 74,300 square feet). Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Moscow is about 85,000 square feet of interior space. White Cube is competing on this global level.

Jay Jopling’s new gallery is housed in a converted 1970s warehouse which previously sat unobserved behind a service yard. Architect Casper Mueller Kneer has removed the boundary walls, replaced them with painted steel fins and paved the courtyard with granite setts. The resulting void breaks the existing street line in a way that the former warehouse, though abject did not. The street’s gravity has been reversed. It is now pulled towards this huge building.

The courtyard establishes this as a ‘special’ building. Land is a commodity: to leave this much ‘idle’ on this street demonstrates that its owner has considerable means. To warrant this amount of standoff emphasises the value of what’s within. Pediments and flagpoles once symbolised a building’s status. Now bollards do.

The warehouse’s long-span structure enables the division of the gallery into enormous rectangular rooms. The entrance consists of gigantic stainless-steel-framed glass doors below a canopy. A corridor runs from the doors down the building’s length. Galleries are arrayed either side. To the right are the three North Galleries. To the left are three much larger South Galleries.

The corridor’s ceiling is made of the same steel mesh as the canopy. Above runs a spine of ducts, feeding air into the building. All services above the mesh are blacked out. Fixed below are hundreds of fluorescent battens, marching in rows. The feel is surgical. The flicker is vaguely restless. The lighting establishes this space as one of pure circulation. Nothing is displayed along it. At the corridor’s end there is a black-curtained auditorium behind a glass screen. The glossy darkness mirrors the corridor, apparently extending it further.

Height challenges the artist and empowers the art. The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern is the apotheosis of this tendency. The bigger the room and the greater the number of big rooms, the more seriously the gallery is viewed. The new Saatchi Gallery at King’s Road (AT192) isn’t that tall. It’s earliest iteration on Boundary Road was taller. The Gagosian on Britannia Street by Caruso St John (AT149) has two rooms more than fiver metres high. It is one of the few London galleries that is comparable to those in New York. Hauser & Wirth on Savile Row was the big new gallery opening of Frieze week 2010. Its spaces are tall for London, but not when measured against international examples.

White Cube’s rooms are all taller than all these prominent galleries. The tallest measures nine by nine by nine metres and punches through the existing roof line. It is daylit, but comparing it with the other artificially-lit rooms, you wouldn’t know. The light to all the South Galleries is diffuse and uniform from light boxes. The sole means of lighting to the North Galleries is from ceiling-mounted tracks. Not one of the galleries has a direct link to the outside world. It is only when you return down the corridor to leave that the exterior comes back into view.

In these big spaces big works excel. Smaller works are lost. Damien Hirst’s pill cabinet, Neverland (2002), is probably the most expensively made and highly valued work in the White Cube’s opening group show, Structure and Absence. It’s aggressively vacant, mirror-polished and supremely fabricated. It’s certainly the best displayed, being hung centrally on one wall all by itself. At eight metres long, it demands its own space.

Perfect execution is assumed. The means of production, however, is hidden. Technique is not discussed, it is sublimated. This is the umbilical cord between modern art and the white cube galleries (lower case) which display it. Architect Yoshio Taniguchi said to the donors of New York’s Museum of Modern Art ‘If you raise a lot of money, I will give you great, great architecture. But if you raise really a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear.’ The fewer the details, the emptier is the effect. The obsessive elimination of visible detail is, at its best, experienced as a kind of sublime.

As the focus narrows, the smallest details assume the greatest importance. The treatment of the base of the wall is a good case. Shadow-gaps are expensive. They risk getting fussy. They run into awkward things, like doors. Fewer doors make better galleries. Shadow-gaps make the wall look designed – possibly too designed. To make the wall to look artless means eliminating the shadow-gap. To achieve an artless junction means a perfectly finished wall. White Cube has shadow-gaps.

Traditionally ‘blue chip’ galleries have timber floors and contemporary galleries have concrete floors. Although this distinction no longer holds true for all, the industrial space nonetheless remains the basis of the contemporary gallery aesthetic. Yet frequently warehouses have better lasting concrete floors than galleries. The best designed floors are ground-bearing slabs.

White Cube Bermondsey has a ground-bearing slab. It’s got crack control joints on a regular grid. There’s some minor cracking around floor boxes. Repairs will no doubt fix this. Floor sockets are the bane of concrete floors. After a year the full extent of cracking across the whole floor, if any, should be apparent. Only then can one judge whether this is a really good slab. Right now its shiny blue-grey colour shimmers from the power-float ride-on machines. It smells intoxicating in the way that only newly poured slabs can.

Arguably the best London gallery floor is the Gagosian, which is 450mm thick. Yet on day one, it looked very uneven. The surface had been grit-blasted and you could see every pass of the machine (published photos don’t seem to show this). Seven years on it looks great. Floors need to be experienced over time. Correctly designed, unweathered concrete improves with age and wear. In the best concrete floors – say Tadao Ando’s intervention at the Punta della Dogana in Venice (2009) – you feel the quality through your feet.

The tour of a public museum ends at the cafe. If it’s a private gallery, it ends at the bookshop. Serious galleries publish each show. They have a bookshop, selling mainly their own books, which are hard-backed and expensive. As more people visit galleries and gallery publishing becomes more scholastic, the bookshops themselves become more intimidating. At White Cube, the books are on high shelves, and there’s no ladder. You have to ask the staff to get them down.

Most people who go to galleries cannot afford the work. They can however buy the book, which stands as a substitute artefact. The art public knows the deal and wants it anyway. Modern galleries provide a stage to act out the illusion of a purer form of consumerism, removed of anxiety.

Giles Reid is the London representative of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

Casper Mueller Kneer
Casper Mueller Kneer was established in 2010 by the combination of Berlin-based Büro Jens Casper and London-based Mueller Kneer Associates. The partners are Jens Casper, Marianne Mueller and Olaf Kneer. The practice works internationally on cultural projects and spaces for the arts for private and institutional clients.

Project team
Architect: Casper Mueller Kneer; design team: Jens Casper, Olaf Kneer, Marianne Mueller, Graham Sproul, Aya Okada, Chi Mai Lan, Alessandro Burro, Matthias Grabe, Marian Manten, Michael J Williams, Fabian Neuhaus, Wolfgang Frese; structural engineer: Atelier One; services engineer: Bob Costello Associates; project manager: Millbridge Group; qs: Millbridge Group; planning consultant: DP9; acoustic consultant: BDP; site support architect: RHWL; CDM consultant: Goddard Consultants; fire safety consultant: Ramboll Safes; main contractor: Life Build Solutions; client: White Cube.

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