6a Architects’ work at the South London Gallery makes a palpable unity of a historical oddity, discovers Fred Scott.
The west end of the Peckham Road, this corner of the world quite Queen Anne: the old Camberwell Town Hall on the corner and further along, a building with AD 1897 on its chimney, the first home of the famous Camberwell College of Arts. Behind it resides the South London Gallery. It predates the art school, which explains the long corridor that connects the front of the college to the original exhibition space.
The gallery is the foremost independent contemporary art space south of the river. It has its origins in a college for the working man founded in Blackfriars Road in 1868. A free library and gallery were added and the growing institution moved to Peckham Road in 1891 and to its present building in 1898. Walter Crane, a committed socialist, and Edward Burne-Jones, the painter and founder member with William Morris of The Brotherhood at Oxford, were both early associates of the gallery. Whatever happened to the working man? How and why did he become invisible? I swear I had lunch just the other day in a cafe full of them.
Jones and Woodward’s Guide to the Architecture of London makes a drive-by assessment: ‘Fussy Jacobethan and baroque’. The gallery is approached through a striking Arts and Crafts gate, and then a plump doorway paired with the art school entrance, beneath an entablature supported by stumpy columns of exaggerated entasis. The inscription on it reads: ‘The Passmore Edwards South London Art Gallery and Technical Institute’. Above this, a pilastered and rusticated storey is capped by a broken, segmented arch, rising again through another banded storey to a pediment that only the final stages of classicism could have designed. What compositional freedom the architects of that time had, what ease of improvisation with the classical language. And how startling that within 18 years of this building’s completion, Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino could be published as the new exemplar for building. Modernity’s assertive primitivism, the bloodshed in the trenches, the Bolshevik revolution and the rapid advance of technology all taken together cannot quite explain this degree of disjuncture. Although I don’t believe for a moment that the Orders or any of their derivatives could be re-acquired, nevertheless this split still sometimes rankles.
Inside the door, on the left- hand side is a handsome cartouche with a red marble surround, in remembrance of forgotten early benefactors. The long corridor proceeds, surrounded on both sides and above by the art school, with its assortment of symmetries and Arts and Crafts features painted out a unifying spectral white. At the end, in the original gallery, an artist is encountered preparing for the opening show, transposing a written description of a visual event onto the walls. As we pause at the entrance, our eyes still sun-struck, the work in its unfinished state haunts the far corner of the unlit gallery.
The architect and I turn right through the dark grey bookshop to enter the adjacent house – now the Matsudaira building – that is one of two major sites of interventional work. The project has unfolded over several years, without its full extent becoming clear until late; the architect explains that this has required a ‘sequence of judgments’ rather than a comprehensive strategy. The conversion of the house, which was a wreck behind its bay-fronted facade, is a later addition to the project. In its reworked resurrection one can best apprehend the brilliance of invention and foresight that has made the complete project so elegant and engrossing. The house provides an alternative entrance, and is used to solve problems of access. The new staircase in the house is reversed, and deceptively detailed to public access standards, belying its apparent domesticity. Offsetting the rigour of the tight-spindled right handrail, on the wall side is a floating, sinuous, continuous walnut handrail, with a glimpse at one point of a delicious double fan-tailed joint beneath.
There is a flat on the top floor for resident artists, who are invited to make marks on the walls, the sort of invitation that only Keith Moon would have been fully capable of accepting. As a result the markings are more Walter the Softy than Dennis the Menace. However, in the new shower and toilet which encloses a naked Victorian chimney breast, where a more jaundiced mind might expect to find crude depictions of genitalia, there are instead tidy black and white drawings of a greater obscenity, scenes from the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, line drawings taken from documentary photographs of the savage reprisals during La Semaine Sanglante.
The graffiti now corralled in art spaces has little connection to New York City of the 1980s, of Watching My Name Go By. Similar works can still be viewed travelling west from Paddington on the Hammersmith & City line, an immense co-operative linear wall painting, seen from carriages in the company of groups of primed women headed for Westfield for a morning banging plastic. I remember North Kensington in another age: ‘This too will burn’ written on the newly-built Westway near Portobello; ‘Revolution flames ecstasy’ just off Westbourne Grove; ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ on the flank wall of Colville Square. In the following decades tameness has descended. No one now stands for more than a moment outside; politeness hardens like lava. Modern life has such huge powers of appropriation, of absorbing the opposition. Exit through the gift shop past displays of Banksy’s book.
The heart of the scheme is a pair of magic boxes, joined by a serpentine brick path through a garden of suspiciously perfect hostas. The first box is on the back of the house, linking it to the bookshop. It is double-height, plainly detailed, with exposed ceiling structure and three identical windows onto the outside world in the upper storey – north, east and west, the latter couple projecting themselves onto the opposite wall alternately in the morning and the evening. The other window looks in from the first floor of the house. Extensive ground floor glazing and openings onto a fine smokers’ terrace, from which the path sets out, connect the box to everything – altogether the perfect party room. The exterior is shingled with cement boards, and there is a terrace above, against the grand cornice of the old building. The architects habitually model certain parts, including this piece, at 1:20; perhaps this is the secret. The changes of scale throughout are masterful.
The path, bypassing the main gallery, reaches the other, larger box. The new Clore Education Studio has on top an echoing fanlight to the gallery, with which it makes two sides of an ample open square at the back of the site, overlooked by the serious windows of the painting studios next door. This is a box of thoughtful tricks: walls pivoting open, a giant door closing one way as it opens another, making a mirror as it goes. The exterior is clad in the same sombre manner as the previous box, the proportions in plan and elevation handled an assured manner. Stepping out into the square, one wants the scheme to continue unfolding.
Behind the education space, trapped in a leftover slot, is an elegant concrete bench, its misplaced philanthropy emphasised by the blank wall it now faces. Behind it, beyond the chain-link boundary fence at the back of a row of single-storey council houses, is a Grecian standing figure, inexplicably with her back to the houses, staring through the fence at the same blank edifice. The houses are part of the Sceaux Gardens estate, where in July 2009 six people died in a fire at Lakanal House, a fifteen-storey block. Visiting the estate, one notes the absence of graffiti, or any of the usual signs of stress. Within an empty shop a worker from the gallery is running a playgroup, outside are boxed allotments. Nearby is the saddest memorial to the victims.
The estate is set in mature wooded parkland, the grounds of a former lunatic asylum; on my visit it was calm and beautiful. A single gate has been set to connect the open space of the gallery with the estate, and one wonders about a wider connection, maybe a shared building at some future time between the gallery, art college the estate; everyone, and the city, might benefit from such a connection.
The main gallery is closed by four bank doors, donated at some point in its history. Returning through it, respectfully silent, we complete our circular tour, seeing again the artist in her habitual dark clothes, mother superior directing her novices on the under-illuminated manuscript. And here am I, stringing words together, finding myself envying the mood prevailing there.
With the wonderful Raven Row gallery in Spitalfields (AT196), this project confirms the abilities of 6a Architects. Both works are outstanding demonstrations of the proposition that modernist formal vocabulary can act as the universal medium of alteration. My more avid readers will know this is only half an answer, but here again pure form and smooth surface are introduced to mend, heal, repair and in consequence to make a palpable unity.
Fred Scott was visiting professor of interior architecture at Rhode Island School of Design and course leader for interior design at Kingston University. His book On Altering Architecture was published by Routledge in 2007.
Architect: 6a Architects; design team: Tom Emerson, Stephanie Macdonald, Takeshi Hayatsu (project associate), Max Beckenbauer, Alessandro Cairo, Sylvie Duvoisin, Trevor Brown, Lucia Frescaroli, Max Retegui, Mariana Simoes, Susanne Sauter, Eva-Maria Stadelmann, Katharina Schworer, Jonathan Wong; structural engineer: Jane Wernick Associates; m&e engineer: Serge Lai Engineers; qs: Stockdale; main contractor: John Perkins Projects; client: South London Gallery.
First published as Boxed Content, AT209, June 2010.