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CSJ at 25: Gagosian Gallery Grosvenor Hill by Caruso St John and TateHindle

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The finely wrought detail on show at the new Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair is a world away from the sterile white cube, writes Jay Merrick

ARCHITECT’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA

The idea of art galleries as ‘white cubes’ generates conflicting suggestions: classical purity, Modernist machines for arting about in, hermetic voids, erasures of time and context. This genre of galleries can feel like clinics, as in Jay Jopling’s White Cube, secreted in Mason’s Yard, a London lacuna that appears on Rocque’s map of the area around St James’s in 1746.

The description of the White Cube scheme by its architect MRJ Rundell + Associates is depressingly clipped: ‘Within an array of mismatched brick structures, which comprise the perimeter of the courtyard, White Cube’s formal restraint creates a contrast while retaining the core characteristic of discretion’. Some of those ‘mismatched brick structures’ are part of the 18th- and 19th-century fabric of the St James’s conservation area. History is not always a matter of discretion.       

It’s no doubt impertinent to begin a description of the new Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair, designed by Caruso St John, in this way. But the contrast between ham-fisted design explanations and more thoughtful ones is instructive, particularly in relation to ostensibly simplistic buildings and volumes designed, in essence, to display art to the ultra-rich.

Peter St John’s remarks about the Gagosian scheme are as finely judged as the 5mm gap between the walls and the end-grain oak parquet flooring in the four-gallery composition in Grosvenor Hill, Mayfair. It’s the seventh gallery designed by the practice for the Gagosian brand covering London, Paris, Rome and Hong Kong. In the case of the latest: ‘We were trying to make it feel like rooms, not a series of hanging planes. It’s about giving the spaces something special for a Mayfair location.’

According to St John, the design requirement boiled down to two words: ‘fantastic spaces’. Thus, not a blatantly commercial gallery.

Are the gallery spaces ‘fantastic’, as per Gagosian’s dictat? They are immediately satisfying. The sterile, white-cube effect doesn’t apply

More than a dozen potential locations were examined via feasibility studies over a five-year period, because a 2,000m² scheme containing 500m² of column-free galleries in Mayfair is a typological cuckoo in what St John refers to wryly, given the fine old buildings around the Gagosian’s site, as ‘an inner-city location’.

Grosvenor Hill is in a part of London described in the 19th-century series The Beauties of England and Wales as consisting of ‘a great number of excellent houses, the majority of which are inhabited by titled persons and affluent families’. In the same century, the RIBA was based around the corner in Davies Street, as was Duburg’s Exhibition of cork models of ancient temples and theatres in Italy and the south of France; the context remains architecturally grand, and grandly consumerist.

The Gagosian scheme’s configuration is unusual, as is the fact that the site’s owners, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, preferred to use a separate architect, TateHindle, to design the basic structure and shell of the building. The gallery segment extends westwards at ground level, then morphs into the Gagosian’s first-floor offices and private viewing rooms; this back-of-house portion forms a new podium, which slides under an existing 1960s medium-rise apartment block in a Lever House manner.

The new structure has been achieved in a clean, neutrally Modernist style. St John particularly likes the long, thin, pale grey bricks selected by TateHindle but, to my eyes (and a temporarily assumed Mayfair hauteur), the pointing is irritatingly variable. Caruso St John was effectively serving two clients – Grosvenor Britain & Ireland as site owner and Gagosian as leaseholder – which made the project, in St John’s view, ‘extremely difficult to deliver’. There is no sense of this in the finished scheme however. The double-height gallery (achieved with an additional steel bridge frame) projects into the L-bend of Grosvenor Hill, offering three sides with wide floor-to-ceiling windows – ergo, ‘a site that seems to be freestanding’. As St John explains: ‘We were trying to give a strong impression of daylight’.

The layout of the galleries forms an L-plan. There are two main exhibition spaces, covering 162m² and 181m², a 67m² gallery-cum-reception area, and a 20m² linking gallery between the two big volumes; the windows in the reception gallery, along with one of the two windows in the western gallery, are vertically hinged and openable. ‘Having windows in a gallery is something you do with care,’ says St John. ‘There’s a point where they can be disturbing to a room. They’re in the corners here so they don’t interrupt the scale of the art.’

Are the gallery spaces ‘fantastic’, as per Gagosian’s dictat? They are immediately satisfying as proportions and volumes, and the corner windows accentuate the perspectives through the main galleries. The sterile white-cube effect doesn’t apply. These are rooms rather than whiteouts for oligarchs.

This ‘roomness’ is accentuated by the engineered oak block flooring, which is very dark and strongly patterned with radial figurations. It is not an obvious material for such big floor areas but it does highlight the practice’s interest in demonstrating finely wrought detail in any situation.

The lighting is equally finely wrought and, for all its compositional qualities, perhaps this is what ultimately ensures that the atmosphere and viewing conditions have such a tuned gravitas. Louis Kahn said in 1969 that ‘structure is the maker of light’. In Grosvenor Hill in the 21st century, what makes the light is the symbiotic relationship between thousands of LED lights in the main galleries’ rectangular ceiling cassettes and whatever light comes in through the windows.

The brightness and subtle colouration of the LEDs is controlled by sensors on the gallery’s roof; they mimic the daylight levels. ‘The first time I experienced this a cloud passed over and the lights dimmed,’ recalls St John. ‘It sent a shiver down my spine.’

The galleries work in the most important way of all. The Gagosian’s opening show presents scribbled drawings on buff paper and huge, vividly coloured canvases by Cy Twombly. Through a gallery window facing Grosvenor Hill, a white builder’s van trundles past, followed by a Jaguar limo, which pulls up. The Twomblys frame this quotidian scene superbly.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic of the Independent

Gagosian Gallery Grosvenor Hill by Caruso St John and TateHindle

Gagosian Gallery Grosvenor Hill by Caruso St John and TateHindle

Architect’s view

We were responsible for the exterior design and structural remodelling of Grosvenor Britain & Ireland’s 20 Grosvenor Hill project in Mayfair, which, from this month, will be the new London home of the Gagosian Gallery.

The building originally comprised tired 1960s offices, situated in a podium, with residential apartments in the tower above and a multistorey car park in the basement. The redesign has completely transformed the podium structure into an impressive new building for one of the world’s leading art galleries. The contemporary exterior integrates with the public realm while relating to the surrounding area.

Externally, the podium is clad in handmade, artisan Roman bricks in a blue-grey palette, chosen to create visual unity across the entire elevation. The bricks are elongated and flatter than standard stock, giving a textured look and feel to the facade. Depending on the level of daylight and orientation of the sun, the brickwork has a unique ephemeral appearance through the play of light, shadow and texture.  

The western side of the podium is defined by a simple brick structure, with full-height glass doors and vitrine windows punctuating the facade and advertising the main gallery spaces.

Internally, the first-floor slab in the podium has been removed to create a spacious double-height gallery. High-quality offices and client viewing rooms on the first floor occupy the eastern side of the building. The new floor banding is in keeping with the horizontal floor slabs that dominate the facade above. The windows to this space occupy the full height between the banding and create a vertical rhythm along the street, while mirroring the architectural composition of the tower.

We have designed a modern and clean building appropriate for a world-renowned art gallery that is in context with this area of Mayfair. We are delighted with the end result and proud to have contributed to Grosvenor’s vision for the rejuvenation of Grosvenor Hill.

TateHindle has been working with Caruso St John, who designed the building interiors, and BDP, the public realm architect.

Andrew Tate, director, TateHindle

Gagosian Gallery Grosvenor Hill by Caruso St John and TateHindle

Gagosian Gallery Grosvenor Hill by Caruso St John and TateHindle

Source: Helen Binete

Project data

Project name Gagosian Gallery
Date 2012-2015
Client Gagosian Gallery, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland
Start on site April 2015
Completion October 2015
Form of contract or procurement route: Standard Building Contract without Quantities
Building area
Gross internal floor area
 1,670m2
Galleries 560m2
Construction cost confidential
Architects Caruso St John, TateHindle
Structural engineer Ramboll
Services consultant Ramboll
Cost consultant Jackson Coles
Project manager Jackson Coles
CDM co-ordinator Jackson Coles
Approved building inspector MLM
Main contractor Westgreen Construction
CAD software used: ArchiCAD 

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