A new cultural building in central London puts both art and the city on show, finds Ros Diamond. Photos: Dennis Gilbert.
The Photographers’ Gallery has reopened on a narrow back street in Soho, one block south of Oxford Street. Amongst the service entrances to large retail units and the London Palladium, it is an unlikely location for a public arts building. Once found, however, it is instantly identifiable, distinguished from the neighbouring blocks as a unique new architectural entity. What began in 2009 as a project for a new building, designed by O’Donnell & Tuomey, changed after planning approval into the transformation of the early-twentieth-century steel-framed warehouse on the site. A budget-driven decision has given rise to a new version of the post-modern typology of the industrial-cultural conversion. The existing building, neither ‘preserved or obliterated’, has been rescaled to emerge as a unique form, its urbanity readable in its aggrandised institutional appearance and its street frontage.
The building’s tight ten- by twenty-metre footprint presented a challenge for the scale of spaces needed. In both designs, the exhibition galleries were situated at the top, juxtaposing display with privileged views of the city. In the final project, the basic planning strategy is to slip a staircase, large lift and servicing into the back of the floors, leaving the largest possible gallery spaces in a four-storey stack within the existing and new volumes. The Photographers’ Gallery contains spaces for temporary exhibitions (it does not hold a permanent collection), education, a resource centre, a cafe, print sales and a very good specialist bookshop. Two new top floors in a black box aligned to the existing brick-faced warehouse, raise the building to its neighbours’ height. A large extruded window to the tower-like top floor forms a majestic vertical accent, identifying the new building as one of the few public arts institutions so close to central London’s greatest retail street. With the impact of its rescaled external presence, it capitalises on the site’s extended visibility through a gap to Oxford Street. Inside, this periscope window celebrates the gallery’s exceptional vantage point in the middle of the West End, with foreground ‘Rear Window’ sightings of roof-mounted plant and into adjacent offices, and a long view to the north. Looking is therefore a common feature of the visitor’s experience of both the city and the exhibition. (In the case of the inaugural show, Edward Burtynsky’s remote yet disturbing large format Oil series, his images of the chaotic collaged impact of the motorcar occasionally collide with the visible city beyond the glass.) On all the gallery floors, small residual niches between the gallery ends and the existing stairs act as breathing spaces from the exhibitions, and viewpoints to the city, flattening the outside world behind windows instead of picture frames.
The project’s modest budget of £3.6 million resulted in an acute economy of addition and detail, focussed on the use of strategic building elements integral to the project’s main architectural intentions. A 100mm-thick skin of light-absorbent black render has been stretched over the brick-faced building like a mitten over a hand, or the moulded leather case on an old camera. The thickened outer layer becomes apparent in deep hardwood window and entrance door frames, with sleeve-like reveals. This makes a typological alteration to its appearance, detaching the cultural institution from the bland context of retail and office blocks, or the undistinguished warehouses interspersed with Soho’s Georgian terraced houses behind. Previous O’Donnell & Tuomey projects resonate in this, its first completed London project: there are echoes of the Irish Film Centre (1992), a widely accessible public building inhabiting a part of Dublin, and of the Gallery of Photography (1996) with its over-scaled window in the nearby Temple Bar district. Even the detailed design of the Milkbar (2002) is implicit in the approach to the new gallery’s cafe.
The black render, framing visible fragments of the old warehouse on each facade as it is brought down to the shop and entrance frontage, rescales the building form to make it feel larger, rising above its actual height. Engaging with the idea of the ‘obligation to the difficult whole’ discussed by Robert Venturi in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), the remade facades fuse the representation of the public gallery with Soho street life on the ground-floor. Functional expression in the large upper gallery window, set into an opaque wall, is collaged with signage in the vertical render strips, and the cafe’s black terrazzo base, so that to paraphrase Venturi, the building has become a ‘manifestation of both-and at the scale of the city’, as ‘both a wall and a tower’.
Craft was fundamental to the building’s multi-layered persona. It needed to be robust and well planned as it was to be constructed under a design & build contract in which O’Donnell & Tuomey’s role ended at the contract’s start – always risky for a public cultural building. Nevertheless, the outcome is surprisingly good, although finishing problems are visible, particularly with some of the last details which may be associated with the building’s completion. Shortly before, in another tragic outcome of the recession, the main contractor, Killby & Gayford, renowned for its refurbishments and craft building skills, went into liquidation.
The building’s appearance and internal organisation respond to the local urban morphology of Soho. A functional bifurcation draws visitors to the galleries above, or leaves them to a street life embodied in the ground floor cafe, and its changing wall of digital photographic screens. A large piece of the ground floor slab has been removed to expose the basement shop as an extension of the street. The glazed corner cafe is lined with a smooth black terrazzo reminiscent of 1950s bars. Outside it forms a shopfront, shiny against the black render. Inside it runs over the floor and up to a plinth under counter-height window cills where one can sit, Hopper-like, visible to passing shoppers. This mediation between the commercial bustle of Oxford Street and the cultural offerings of the upper-floor galleries should attract life to this fissure-like back street – one of the many contributions the gallery will make to its new neighbourhood.
Ros Diamond is a director of Diamond Architects. She has co-edited a number of books and was an editor of the journal 9H.
O’Donnell & Tuomey
Established in Dublin in 1988, the practice is currently working on educational and cultural projects in Ireland, the UK and Europe. The New Students’ Centre for the London School of Economics is due for completion in 2013.
Architect: O’Donnell+Tuomey; O’D+T design team: Sheila O’Donnell, John Tuomey, Willie Carey, Henrik Wolterstorff, Jitka Leonard, Jane Larmour-Wheeler; executive architect: ADP; ADP design team: Roger FitzGerald, Geoff Brown, Dianna Floud, Jonathan Stewart; acoustics: Acoustics Limited; approved inspector: Butler & Young; cost consultant: Huntley Cartwright; main contractor: Killby & Gayford; m&e engineer: Arup; party wall surveyor: Gordon Ingram Associates; project manager: Cragg Management; signage designer: North; structural engineer: Morrish & Partners.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Bathroom supplies: Borrick; camera obscura: Amazing Camera Obscura; carpentry: Adrol; digital screens: Sharp; drylining and ceilings: Kent & Roberts; electrical services: Chalbrook Services; exterior sign: Sign 2000; external acrylic render system: Sto; external hardwood window frames and panelling: Woodcraft Joinery; fire resisting window: Multi Firescreen Systems; floor coverings: Paragon Flooring; folding glass screen: Rimadesio; glazing: Birchdale Glass; in-situ terrazzo: WB Simpson & Sons; internal doors: Linear; ironmongery: Dorplan; lift: Otis; main staircase balustrade: Insteelation; mechanical services: Metromec Building Services; moving wall: Balance Design Engineering; oak flooring: Woods of Wales; decorating: Green Decorations; precast staircase: Milbank; roof coverings: RCF Roofing; roof hatch: Surespan; roof membrane: Atlantic by Bailey Roofing Systems; secondary glazing: Selectaglaze; structural steelwork: London Engineering Company; washroom accessories: Dolphin Dispensers; washroom IPS: Venesta Washroom Systems; washroom tiles: Solus Ceramics.
First published in AT229, June 2012