A photography studio with an entirely concrete structure makes the most of light and space, writes Tom Wilkinson. Photography and film by Jim Stephenson
There is a long-standing and mysterious partnership between photography and architecture. Both depend on the manipulation of light, after all, and it is inconceivable now that either could exist without the other. Photography began – one of its several beginnings – with Fox Talbot’s shot of the oriel window at Lacock Abbey, and the light flooding into the room reveals the metaphoric status of the camera as chamber, and vice-versa.
To design a photographer’s studio, then, evidently demands a heightened degree of attention to the whims of light. What else does a photographer need? Space and – in the past – darkness and good drains, although the latter two requirements have been obviated by the triumph of the digital image.
The studio has become more flexible thanks to these changes, and one can do a lot with light and space. 6a Architects has, in its studio for Juergen Teller, done an enormous amount.
The studio lies just north of London’s Westway in a neighbourhood that retains a once-familiar Zone 2 atmosphere, with a low-density mixture of light industrial and domestic buildings that is now vanishing all around London beneath brick-clad flats. This gives the building a setting not altogether alien. Although it sits somewhat strangely between its neighbours – an island of architecture crammed between stock-brick pseudo-vernacular houses and white-rendered pseudo-modern flats – the rest of the road is equally motley.
In any case, although the front is of shuttered concrete, and blank at ground level, it is not quite mute. The façade is folded slightly down the middle, and a huge window bursts through at the top left. To one side, the trace of a former occupant can be detected, a brick wall absorbed into the body of the new building like a vestigial twin. The entrance is a garage door-sized aperture filled with light grey wood, which opens to reveal an enfilade of alternating darkness and light receding into the back of the building, through its three volumes and two courtyards.
The building is thereby disaggregated into pavilions, but this winnowing-out of spaces does not strictly follow a function-defined programme. The idea is less deterministic than that, so that photographic shoots can take place more or less anywhere: 6a co-founder Tom Emerson is emphatic that this is not a typical white cube studio. Indeed, the entire structure is of concrete, with the exterior walls poured in situ, as were the large and unusually fine beams (the thinness of these elicited some initial scepticism from the contractors). The rest is of blockwork, and the even grey tone has the effect of turning the entire interior into a white-balance card.
There are a few dedicated spaces, nonetheless. The ground floor of the front pavilion houses a heavily protected store for Teller’s archive, for instance. Further along the corridor a shaft of illumination falls from a skylight. Looking up, one is presented with an extraordinary view: a lightwell half-filled with a steel grille floor, with doors apparently opening into nothingness. The concrete and metalwork give this space a somewhat carceral atmosphere, to which the receding grid of the blockwork adds a dramatic sci-fi flavour. It is an intriguing collision of the austere and the theatrical.
Beyond this, a stairway – glazed and equipped with brass railings – takes the visitor up to the main office, that space behind the large window facing onto the street, as well as smaller offices that were originally intended to house photo-processing facilities. Teller was until recently a devotee of film, and only converted to digital during the construction process, rendering the windowless and mechanically ventilated darkroom potentially useless. Instead it has been reappropriated as a space for digital postproduction, the darkness facilitating focus on its colour-calibrated monitor screens.
Back downstairs, we now move into the first courtyard – you must go outside in order to pass through the building, which can only be traversed at ground level. These outdoor spaces have been planted by garden designer Dan Pearson with the kind of flora that erupted from the ruins of London after the Blitz, and, in another stagey touch, the ground is of shattered concrete, cast here and then broken up with a pneumatic drill to make spaces for plants. One wall retains a piece of the structure that previously occupied the site, a concrete pillar and beam, creating a ruin-chic trellis. Adding to the Ballard theme-park feel, an inflatable dinosaur is lodged among the branches of a tree.
Beyond this courtyard, through a glazed lower storey, we enter the second pavilion. This is entirely occupied by the main studio, a large warehouse-like space top-lit through concrete beams. The room is bookended by two ‘superbeams’, which are actually suspended storage spaces that are accessed by narrow staircases. When I visit, the studio is in postproduction mode, and trestle tables fill the space, covered with prints being used to determine the layout of a new book.
Finally, beyond another courtyard lies the last pavilion, which contains a dining room, a library and above these another, unprogrammed room. There is also a bathroom equipped with a sauna, a little bit of provincial Germany transplanted to West London, as Teller himself puts it. The bathroom suites, I should add, are equipped with ornate, gold-effect fittings. Like the mock-Georgian bevelling around the window frames, this is another seemingly incongruous touch that deflates the potentially po-faced hipness of the exposed concrete, despite Emerson referring in our conversation to South Americans such as Lina Bo Bardi. Instead, the insertion of witty and occasionally historicist touches, of dramatic scenography, makes for a kind of Brutalist mannerism. This was not entirely absent from Brutalism the first time around – think of the historical references made by the Barbican, for instance. But here traces of history are absorbed into the building, and then gently mocked by details within. The result is a fascinating dialogue between architecture and its past.
Tom Wilkinson is history editor of The Architectural Review and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at The Warburg Institute
How we built it
The thin and long site provided many of the conditions which define the project. Three buildings and three gardens (designed by Dan Pearson) are aligned within three closed walls, leaving a narrow façade to the street, articulated by a single double height window. Parallel concrete beams at 1m intervals span the width of the site, diffusing top light falling into the studio spaces. Moving from the street deep into the site, spaces become increasingly private and the gardens wilder, mindful of Teller’s distinctive portraits, which match playful confidence with sensitivity to his subjects and the spaces they inhabit. Like John Soane’s house/museum, this inner world is defined by light from above, views into the gardens beyond and horizons in the pictures on the walls and tables.
As one might expect from a photographer, Juergen Teller responded extremely sensitively and precisely to images and models, compared with his relative indifference towards plans or sections. He gave us some broad requirements but was totally open about how that should be done. He repeated that we would not give him advice on how to take a photograph or what kind of film he should use and he behaved in the same way towards us. General intentions and requirements were refined with Teller as the spaces emerged. The three buildings started as similar to the central studio in the full knowledge that site, adjacencies and requirements would conspire to bring natural specificity to each one. Even during demolition, elements of former constructions – a brick boundary wall and concrete post and beam were retained like archaeological fragments in the gardens.
Dan Pearson’s garden design is inspired by the gardens that grow naturally in the untouched corners of a city (like those captured by RSR Fitter in London’s Natural History, 1946). In the first garden, a remnant of a former building’s concrete frame acts as a trellis for foliage, while in the final garden the cracked concrete ground that initially allowed plants to take root has completely disappeared beneath heavy vegetation. The planting will continue to grow, eventually merging building and garden into one.
The planning process was extremely slow and eventually unlocked by a supportive design review panel and conservation officer (despite not being in a Conservation Area). Following consultation with neighbours and neighbourhood association, some minor modifications were made to the third building, which adjoins Victorian back gardens.
The extreme depth and narrowness of the site not only directed much of the design, it determined the way to build it. Primary structure and external walls are reinforced concrete cast in-situ. The building is highly insulated and lined in a combination of concrete and blockwork to maximise thermal mass and natural material textures. No finishes are applied, not even paint. Construction, which could only be accessed from within the site, had to proceed laboriously from the rear towards the street, casting one building at a time.
The first building to be constructed, the furthest into the depth of the site, caused a lot of grumbling from the builders. They complained about the thinness and deepness of the concrete beams (100mm x 800mm) and the complexity of forms. But in the second building, they were really into it, showing off the sharpness of the formwork and reinforcement. It was never easy but there was a lot of excitement from everyone as the spaces emerged from the nest of formwork. The slowness, however frustrating to client and contractor, enabled the building to be made with great care.
Tom Emerson, co-founder, 6a Architects
Start on site April 2014
Completion March 2016
Gross internal floor area 513.4m²
Form of contract Design and Build
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect 6a Architects
Landscape architect Dan Pearson Studio
Client Juergen Teller
Structural engineer Price & Myers
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor/cost consultant Gleeds
Client representative AECOM
CDM co-ordinator MLM
Approved building inspector MLM
Main contractor Harris Calnan
CAD software used MicroStation
Annual CO² emissions 36 kg/m²
This article first appeared in the RIBA Stirling Prize 2017 issue which includes a free colouring book