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House of Illustration by Witherford Watson Mann

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Witherford Watson Mann’s House of Illustration continues the remodelling techniques that won it the Stirling Prize, writes Ellis Woodman. Photography by David Grandorge

One of the defining strengths of Witherford Watson Mann’s Stirling Prize-winning remodelling of Astley Castle is its extraordinary economy of means. T his is a building that reads as an accumulation of a few precisely conceived building procedures: the ragged stone structure the practice inherited, the brick by which that fabric was made watertight and the timber that has allowed a residential programme to be accommodated within. Each layer retains a sense of autonomy while contributing to what is ultimately a holistic effect.

The practice’s latest project, T he House of Illustration, is another remodelling, and one again distinguished by the precision with which new work has been related to old. Established in 2002 at the instigation of the children’s book illustrator Quentin Blake, the client is a charitable foundation with a mission to display, publish and discuss all forms of graphic and illustrative work. For the past 12 years it has operated from temporary offices and focused on organising touring exhibitions. With the opening of its new base in July, it has finally acquired a suite of its own galleries, along with a shop and spaces for education and events.

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The project stands within Argent’s rapidly emerging redevelopment of the former goods yards behind London’s King’s Cross Station. It occupies the ground floor and basement of a small but grandly proportioned Victorian office building originally built to house the Great Northern Railway’s administrative staff. T he original building’s principal attraction lay in its conjunction of a narrow plan and enormous sash windows, but the strong illumination, restricted wall surface and limited security this condition presented were all highly problematic for an institution tasked with displaying valuable works on paper.

Witherford Watson Mann’s key task therefore became one of introducing a system of linings. New walls wrap the existing ones throughout the shop and gallery spaces, set back by 600mm as they pass in front of windows to frame a shopfront condition where less precious work can be displayed. The integration of steel mesh behind the walls and steel panels within new doors ensures a level of security that allows work to be borrowed from public collections. T he linings also extend horizontally in the form of wide abstracted cornices set below the existing ceilings. A limited amount of daylight has been allowed to percolate through a zone of frosted perspex set in the gap, but this can be blacked out as required.

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While maintaining a reading of the rooms’ original height, the cornices temper the galleries’ proportions. T hey drop in height from one space to the next, establishing an increasingly domestic scale. T he three galleries form a circuit linked by brief passages set at their corners - the one place where the linings fold back to reveal the existing wall and joinery. T he depth of the adjacent structure gives these openings an aedicular character, a quality exaggerated by a reduction in their ceiling height. Crucially, the arrangement denies any direct visual connection between rooms; the visitor rather experiences a pronounced rhythm generated by the alternation of compressed interstitial spaces and long diagonal views.

The House of Illustration has sublet its floors from the building’s principal tenant, the Art Fund, and this arrangement has limited its ability to transform the space to the extent it might have wished. T he one frustration is the curious dead-end corridor that breaks the gallery circuit - a space that would certainly have been turned into a further exhibition area had the terms of the lease permitted. Nonetheless, Witherford Watson Mann has succeeded in delivering a highly attractive sequence of rooms through an exactingly defined intervention. It is an interior very different from that which stood here before but, as at Astley, one in which new and old fabric form a mutually enriching partnership.

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