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Making space

building study

Antony Gormley and David Chipperfield Architects have collaborated on Gormley’s new studio, a setting for creating, making and reflecting Glimpsed above its high boundary wall, the sawtooth roof profile of this building might at first be mistaken for a refurbished industrial shed. A second look shows a refinement of form and tactility of materials that are exceptional in this run-down area close to London’s King’s Cross station.

 

This refinement and materiality are evident right from the front gate, a large still-glistening plane of galvanised steel that slides back near-noiselessly under remote control. Its opening reveals that the building is set beyond the pristine plane of a large courtyard whose sides are punctuated by specimen trees and which is currently the stage for two of Gormley’s dark cast figures.

 

The enclosing courtyard walls and the flat plane of the building, with its snaking galvanised staircases, emphasise the outdoorroom quality of this space - an entrance hall (deliveries follow a separate route to the west of the courtyard). This courtyard is part of the studio, intended as a summer working space created by placing the building at the rear of the site. It was an opportunity taken;

 

the site had been piled in the 1980s for a sixstorey office block. Building on these piles, the courtyard is a substantial structural plane capable of taking 5T point loads.

 

Neither Chipperfield nor Gormley go in for architectural/sculptural games of obfuscation. That this abstraction of an industrial shed is not immediately legible externally in a form-follows-function way stems from the particularity of the working methods of Gormley and his six full-time assistants. The 900m 2building is of seven equal bays - that hidden farthest to the west (left of frontview) is even more obscured than originally designed, following the just-completed northerly extension of the adjacent club.

 

As shown by Chipperfield’s typically spare orthogonal plans, the two bays starting from the east are a ground-floor workshop plus external stair leading up to office, library and communal space; then a three-bay fullheight studio; then the last two bays house a ground-floor delivery point/store and photography studio (currently being used as a gallery mock-up) plus an external stair to the first floor to the two studios of Gormley and his wife, painter Vicken Parsons.

 

The asymmetrical southerly front still needs some explanation. Set into the facade’s vertical, metal-edged, render strips, there are necessary (galvanised) doors but few (galvanised-framed) windows, principally to the ground-floor workshop and first-floor office and communal space. There, square glass panels are set back from the building surface, capable of sliding fully open. The library to the rear and the studios also have windows, though relatively small, facing largely blank surrounding walls. No accident, of course.

 

When you move inside the building you find all the bays extensively rooflit (supplemented by high-level fluorescent and halogon fittings). Daylight floods in, with all its inherent variability. Gormley is happy to live with the summertime consequences, if necessary, maybe painting the rooflights with greenhouseglass white paint. So the elemental outdoors of the sky comes indoors. But the building does not seek out views. To my question as to why there are so few windows, Gormley says: ‘We are trying to reinvent the future. We don’t want to have to refer to it.’ And later on, ‘the studio is a place of tremendous concentration, (a place) to be completely self-absorbed’. He cites the monastery as the model for the sculptors’ inner focus, and the cloister in particular as a parallel with his studio, enclosed yet open to the sky.

 

If the cloister tradition of thinking-whilewalking may be followed by Gormley and his team, he remains somewhat ambivalent about Chipperfield’s circulation-lengthening sculptural flourish of having only external stairs (for all weathers). He is interested, though, to give it a try, to see how this enforced separation of spaces will affect the group. (In fact, there are a few visual links into the main studio: shuttered windows from the office and library and loft-style opaque double doors from Gormley’s private studio. ) Gormley has been clear all along what his team needed in this, their first purpose-built studio, and is very aware of the need for the building to provide a setting for their particular workstyle. This chimes with Chipperfield’s preference for the concept of ‘purpose’ over (mechanistic) ‘function; purpose suggesting a more inclusive role for a building, embracing its social/cultural dimension.

 

While the purposes were clear early on, the means of realising them were less certain. Gormley and Chipperfield began with ideas of getting away from all those wet trades and the problematic component and people interfaces of traditional contracting, hoping to find an off-the-peg industrial building to modify. Nothing suitable could be found in the UK, though Gormley cites precast industrial buildings in Italy and is admiring of Chipperfield’s Stirling-shortlisted Ernsting Service Center in Germany.

 

So, as Chipperfield says, they started with the idea of ‘a deluxe shed and ended up stripping down (the idea of ) a gallery.’Maybe it’s a bit too much of a gallery still. This is something that both are still reflecting on.

 

There is a lot of underlying structure here for the heavy work Gormley sometimes makes. There are several crane rails overhead and a lot of support structure in the walls for hanging pieces. But the walls are finished in white plaster, more lab-like than factory. The ethos is that while the studio is, almost incidentally, the site of much fabrication, it is essentially a place where something can be made and then reflected on.

 

You can walk all around the outside of this building, something Gormley values;

 

the 3-4m-deep strip to the rear is a well-used outdoor workspace. Beyond that are the backs of other industrial buildings. It is typical of the attention to detail of this project that a deal was struck with the main neighbour to reclad his decrepit wall (in fibre-cement sheets), making this back area a positive rather than leftover space. This is control without the freakery, in contrast to the Ron Dennis/Foster HQ for TAG McLaren (AJ 4.3.04). Working together has been an important part of this building, as the programme has evolved.

 

The result is an appropriately flexible, straightforward concept. It has, though, that Chipperfield refinement of form with a limited materials palette that allows the elemental use of extended planes without blandness and lets the materials speak for themselves.

 

Despite the simplicity it is not formulaic - no Chip off the old block, but a particular response to a particular group of people, purpose-built for imaginative work.

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