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White Cube Bermondsey, London, by Casper Mueller Kneer Architects

A nine-by-nine top-lit ‘cube’ sits within Casper Mueller Kneer’s vast warehouse conversion for super-gallery White Cube, writes James Pallister. Photography by Paul Riddle and Ben Westoby

One of the many ironies of the post-industrial age is that the structural requirements of an art gallery are often significantly greater than can be supplied by the warehouses and light industrial units in which they proliferate.

Such was the case with the new White Cube Bermondsey in south London. Amid the razzamatazz of the Prada suit-clad art crowd’s descent on London for the Frieze Art Fair in October, British art svengali Jay Jopling opened his third White Cube gallery in London, joining its sister galleries in Hoxton and St James’s. The gallery is off a narrow, busy street, already home to the gelateria, coffee shops and tapas bars which spring up around gallery locations.

With a massive 5,440 square metres of space, it’s Jopling’s largest venue, and fits neatly into the trajectory of the global increase in private gallery square metreage as mapped out by OMA/AMO in its current show at the Barbican. The project’s architect, Casper Mueller Kneer, was formed in 2010 by the merger of Berlin-based Büro Jens Casper and London’s Mueller Kneer Associates. Casper’s dramatic conversion of a hulking Second World War concrete bunker in Berlin into a private gallery was the job that caught Jopling’s eye.

In Bermondsey, the loads that White Cube wanted to cater for were too great for the neat but unassuming brick warehouse to cope with, so Casper Mueller Kneer inserted a new freestanding steel structure. It hardly touches the existing envelope. A new concrete slab was laid too, capable of taking up to 100kN in any one place (as a flick through any Richard Serra monograph will tell you, many modern artworks can easily out-industrial even the most hardy factory floors).

The programme is split 50:50 between gallery and office space, not that you’d know, as the latter’s generous provision is hidden in a second storey which runs the length of the building. The double-height ground floor has a straightforward plan; galleries are orientated off a long central ‘street’ that follows the axis of the building, from the entrance at the front to the back, where there is a small auditorium for showing video works.

On the right, open-plan, smaller galleries are used to showcase the work of emerging artists, while the larger galleries to the left are for serious, established names such as Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst and Jeff Wall, who are all included in the inaugural exhibition. One of the few set-piece spaces is here, the ‘courtyard’, which is – literally – a white 9 x 9 x 9-metre cube, top-lit by daylight, in which work can be hung from above or exhibited on the walls. These south galleries have more than 780 square metres of column-free space, which can be reconfigured into several different permutations and lit by a mixture of daylight and artificial lighting.

White Cube Bermondsey describes itself as ‘a private gallery with museum-like functions’, and accordingly one of the rooms to the end of the central spine is a large reading room. Rectangular in plan, one wall is taken up by ceiling-height shelves well stocked with monographs and books on 20th and 21st-century art. To the other side of the long reading table which commands the room is a vitrine full of White Cube memorabilia from the early 1990s, when Brit Art was blazing a trail through London.

Outside, a large canopy has been added to the front of the building. While it might be pushing it to read Joseph Beuys’ influence in the felt curtain, it’s less of a stretch to see Ed Ruscha’s Standard Oil writ large. The cantilever has a vertical foil to it in the partition between the loading bay and formal entrance, and together they look spectacular.

In Brian O’Doherty’s famous 1976 Artforum essay ‘Inside the White Cube’, he wrote about the importance of eliminating the outside world so that inside the gallery artworks could appear ‘untouched’ by time. One of the most interesting points about this project is how it mediates between the internal requirements of the gallery and the outside bustle of the street. It has a very large forecourt between the two, which, sensible turning circles and loading bays aside, could have been turned over to the street, a little ‘gift’ to the public realm, if you like.

Here though, the practicalities of conservation are in tension with opportunities for generosity. The yard area was listed and the site’s perimeter had to maintain the medieval street pattern. The compromise is a strip of vertical pillars laced along the perimeter. From an oblique angle they look like a fence, but straight on they’re permeable. The resulting space between street and gallery is both stand-offish and grandiose. Perhaps this is fitting. After all, the building’s industrial past has not gone away. This is now a space to display art to people, but it’s also a showroom, a warehouse and a clearing house, albeit one in which some of the world’s wealthiest people will spend their money.

 

Credits

Start on site January 2011
Completion October 2011
Gross internal floor area 5,440m2
Type of contract or procurement JCT 2005 Standard Form of Building Contract Without Quantities
Total cost £8 million
Architect Casper Mueller Kneer Architects
Site support architect RHWL Architects
Client White Cube
Structural engineer Atelier One
Services engineer Bob Costello Associates
Fire safety engineer Ramboll
CDM coordinator Goddard Consulting
Project manager Millbridge Group
Quantity surveyor Millbridge Group
Planning consultant DP9
Acoustic consultant BDP
Main contractor Life Build Solutions
Estimated annual CO2 emissions Not known

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