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Gagosian Gallery, Paris, by Caruso St John

The fifth of seven Gagosian galleries designed by Caruso St John Architects, this latest is a consummate work of art, writes Christine Murray

We have grown accustomed to art galleries as a kind of public space – cultural community centres, and not just for the cultural elite. But a commercial gallery is a different, particular thing; not so much public space, as retail space. Their sole purpose is as a showroom for art, often open to the public, but designed with the collector in mind.

The Gagosian Gallery is the largest commercial gallery in the world, with a blue-chip roster of artists such as Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons, James Turrell and Richard Serra, who make large-scale, monumental, and very expensive, works of art.

Located near the Champs-Élysées in Paris, the American gallery’s latest outpost is the fifth of seven Gagosian galleries to be designed by Caruso St John Architects, whose output for the brand includes three spaces in London, one in Rome, and two yet to be completed in Hong Kong and Athens.

‘They are amazing clients,’ says Peter St John, founding partner of the London-based practice. ‘At times, they’ve been the mainstay of our office.’

The private viewing gallery retains a bourgeois residential aesthetic

Source: Mike Bruce/Gate Studios

The private viewing gallery has a bourgeois residential aesthetic

Each completed Gagosian differs in character and palette: from Heddon Street (2000), with Victorian barrel-vaulted ceilings and a terrazzo floor; to Britannia Street (2004), a former bus garage with polished concrete floors and a steel monocoque staircase.

What is consistent across the galleries, however, is a public viewing space, private viewing rooms for serious collectors, and an aesthetic St John calls ‘understated luxury’.

‘They always want things to be a bit quiet, but always of the highest quality,’ says St John of Gagosian. ‘So although you don’t do very much, what you do, you have to do very carefully.’

In Paris, Caruso St John was involved from the outset, choosing this Haussmann-period, once residential building for the gallery. In its courtyard, then covered by a 19th-century glass roof in poor repair, the practice saw the potential of a column-free, top-lit space for the main gallery – a difficult find in Paris.

The building came with caveats. It is listed, and the glass roof was protected, along with other features such as the windows. There are also three adjacent owners. Caruso St John chose Bodin & Associés as executive architects, and St John admits they relied on Jean-Francois Bodin ‘utterly, in the end’. ‘All the nightmares completely passed us by, because we just did the design,’ he adds.

Viewing gallery

Source: Mike Bruce/Gate Studios

Front room gallery

Even with Bodin’s best efforts, work had to stop and restart several times as various permissions were sought. ‘It took a long time to bring the owners of the buildings around,’ says Bodin.

Permission granted, the 12 x 9m main gallery has been extended to a maximum internal height of 4.5m, dictated by the level of the window sills that surround it. The 6.5 x 3.5m rooflight ensures a perfect wash over the walls, hung with Twombly’s vibrant paintings for the opening show. The walls are surprisingly thick at 900mm and conceal the ducts of a museum-grade air conditioning system behind a plaster on steel-frame lathe wall (traditional gallery-wall construction in France, as opposed to the more familiar plasterboard on ply).

As with other Gagosian galleries, the character of the spaces is defined by the floor. On ground level, Caruso St John set out every joint of the 5cm-thick limestone paving slabs so the edges of the 800mm-wide and roughly 1.5m-long stones align perfectly with the walls and openings.

St John claims the very thin joints are indicative of the craftsmanship they encountered in France – ‘With English contractors you might start off saying “I want the stones to be big and the joints very small”, but the stones end up being half the size,’ he says.

Upstairs, the floors of the private viewing gallery and offices are laid with a herringbone-patterned oak parquet. Project architect Florian Zierer says this refers to the bourgeois residential history of the building. Bespoke oak furniture throughout the gallery was also designed by the architects.

Gagosian always wants things to be a bit quiet but out of the highest quality

Between the two floors, a white curvilinear private stair, the balustrade formed by a single piece of aluminium with oak treads, unfurls to the first floor, providing a clue to the exclusivity of the rooms above. The stair, tucked into a corner, is for collectors only, invited to view art, with a view to buy. The stairwell is also used to move art upstairs for installation and storage.

On the second floor (accessed by the ground-floor elevator) is a project space designed by Bodin. It has lower ceilings and a cheaper finish: plasterboard walls, resin floors, and a lower spec A/C system.

One quibble: In Caruso St John’s original plan, the main gallery was visible from the street through the entrance hall – the original passageway to the courtyard. But Gagosian wanted visitors to view Twombly’s sculptures first, so the main space is now accessed through a smaller room to the front of the building. The rearrangement is unfortunate, and means a view from the front door on to a wall, while the gallery reception is now furthest from the door – in the original plan it was directly to the right as you enter the main space. On the day I visited, a table was set up in the entrance corridor to meet guests. But as St John points out, galleries are often rearranged, and it would be simple to put it right again.

Interference notwithstanding, it is an immaculate finish. St John admits this is partially client-led – ‘They are very interested in all aspects of the detail,’ he says. ‘For the floors, you have to make very detailed samples and take a lot of care over it,’ St John adds. But perfection is a trait that has come to be associated with the practice itself, and their obsessive-compulsive placement of every stone and wood block makes this project a fine addition to a growing set.

Project data

Start on site December 2009
Contract duration  6 months
Gross internal area 900m
Total cost undisclosed
Client Gagosian
Architect Bodin & Associés Architectes / Caruso St John Architects
Structural engineer Auxitec Ingéniérie
M&E consultant Auxitec Ingéniérie
Quantity surveyor Bodin & Associés Architectes
Main contractor Pradeau & Morin
Project architect Florian Zierer
Annual estimated CO2 emissions undisclosed

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