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Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

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Damien Hirst chose the right architect for his Newport Street Gallery: the spaces are simply beautiful, writes Ellis Woodman

BRIEF • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • ENGINEER’S VIEW • STAIRCASE DETAIL • PROJECT DATA

The 1985 opening of the Saatchi Gallery on London’s Boundary Road proved a milestone event in the history of British art. Designed by the late Max Gordon, the former paint factory became a contemporary art venue of a scale unknown in the UK – equivalent to an entire floor of the yet-to-be built Tate Modern. It was at this Saatchi Gallery in 1992, that Saatchi himself staged Young British Artists – the exhibition that introduced the world to Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Tracey Emin and the artist who came to be cast as the group’s figurehead, Damien Hirst.

In 2003, Saatchi abandoned Boundary Road for the altogether less resonant setting of County Hall, but the following year Hirst embarked on a project to build a gallery of his own, closely modelled on the character of the venue where he had first secured public attention.

Like Boundary Road, the recently opened Newport Street Gallery, in London’s Vauxhall, is a conversion of a complex of former industrial buildings – in this case, a group of early 20th-century theatre workshops – in a part of London that remains something of an urban backwater. At 3,500m2 it is in fact fractionally larger than the old Saatchi Gallery, incorporating six epically dimensioned galleries as well as a shop, restaurant and offices.

As well as being as an impressive philanthropic achievement, Hirst’s project is a triumph of architectural patronage

Its programme is to be structured around works in Hirst’s collection, which now runs to more than 3,000 pieces. Including extensive holdings of many of his British contemporaries as well as Americans such as Jeff Koons and Richard Prince, it also features an ethnographic section – including a collection of totem poles – and examples of taxidermy and other exhibits that betray Hirst’s more morbid infatuations.

Having spent in the region of £25 million on the building, he is also maintaining free admission – if only as an act of philanthropy, Newport Street would rank as a hugely impressive achievement. But Hirst’s project is also a triumph of architectural patronage.

Designed by Caruso St John, the gallery spaces are simply the most beautiful of their kind in London. They represent the realisation of an organisational idea the practice first explored in its entry to the 1999 competition for the MAXXI in Rome. In contrast to Zaha Hadid’s winning proposal, the practice envisaged retaining many of the existing single-storey barrack buildings on the site, augmenting them with adjoining structures to establish a spatial sequence, characterised by the contrast between the sizes and roof profiles of successive volumes.

At Newport Street, Caruso St John has bookended the three retained workshop buildings with two new buildings. The additions are in brick of a similar reddish tone to the early 20th-century fabric, laid in Flemish bond without expansion joints to achieve a comparably robust expression. Yet while new and old are bound together in one conglomerate, a sense of formal differentiation is maintained between the parts.

Each of the older buildings varies in width, roof profile and fenestration, and the additions follow that paratactic logic, adopting faces of their own. The new block housing offices and a ground-floor shop employs a simple trabeated expression, surmounted by a monumental cantilevered concrete balcony that surveys the elevated railway line across the street. In acknowledgement of the fact that it houses the entrance, the other is more exuberant: heavily glazed at ground level, it develops into a wide cliff of unrelieved brickwork before terminating in a Bart Simpson haircut of spikily attenuated rooflights.

Designed to enable the hoisting of theatrical flats, the older buildings originally housed single volumes with a height of as much as 15m. Caruso St John judged that verticality excessive to the task of displaying artworks, and so subdivided the two taller volumes, achieving a still very imposing 8m height downstairs and more than 5m above. Only in the central block has the original height been maintained. Rising to a skylight 11m above the concrete floor, it is traversed by a minstrel’s gallery linking the upper level rooms to either side.

Compellingly articulated as this sequence is, each gallery remains a quintessential plasterboard-lined white box. Yet, pass into one of the three adjoining stairwells and you enter another world of curvaceous form and intense, tectonic expression.

Built in engineered timber, each oval-planned stair climbs the considerable distance from the ground to first floor in two leisurely loops. They are cantilevered off walls of a white Belgian brick, which has been laid in header bond to provide the smoothest curve. The walls’ complex geometry had to be realised to an exceptionally fine tolerance if the stair was to fit, requiring the builders to erect a cage of suspended piano wires, which mapped out their line in advance of construction.

The challenge was compounded by the specification of a curving precast concrete handrail, recessed directly into the brickwork, and of brick soffits, which again, were prefabricated off site. Much as the use of brick evokes the character of the building’s shell, the atmosphere conjured is pointedly non-industrial, offering a clear statement of the gallery’s institutional ambitions.

The one other spectacular interior, which does not open to the public until January, is a 60-seat restaurant, designed by Hirst and realised with Caruso St John’s help. Dubbed Pharmacy 2, the space represents a still more baroque development of the medicinal aesthetic of Hirst’s earlier Pharmacy in Notting Hill. Images of pills are everywhere: waterjet cut in marble and inset into the white terrazzo floor, hand embroidered on the back of banquettes and even deployed in three dimensions as the seats of bar stools. This is the one part of the building where Hirst has given his own imagination free rein and no one could begrudge him that small indulgence.

Newport Street Gallery could easily have become a vanity project but Hirst has proved himself a generous and cannily unobtrusive patron. He has employed one of the best practices working in the world today and gave it the freedom to deliver one of its very finest buildings.

Ellis Woodman is AJ critic-at-large and director of the Architecture Foundation

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Brief

Caruso St John was asked to make a gallery to allow Damien Hirst to share his extensive art collection with the public. The project involved the conversion of three listed buildings, which were purpose built in 1913 to serve as scenery painting studios for the booming local and West End theatre industries. Hirst acquired the first of the Newport Street buildings in 2002, and initially used it as a studio space. Two new additional buildings were constructed at either end of the existing three, creating a gallery spanning most of the length of the street.

Peter St John, director, Caruso St John

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Source: Helene Binet

Architect’s view

This private gallery in Vauxhall has involved the conversion of an extraordinary terrace of listed industrial buildings that were formerly theatre carpentry and scenery painting workshops.

The gallery runs most of the length of the street, with the three listed Victorian buildings flanked at either end by new buildings. The ground and upper floors within the five buildings are continuous, allowing them to be used flexibly in many combinations to accommodate both large and small exhibitions. There are three large galleries on each of the two floors, stretching in a line from one end of the building to the other. The two gallery levels are connected by new spiral staircases and a large lift.

Along Newport Street and facing the railway, the unusual proportions of the Victorian workshops, with their groups of low-level windows and high blank walls above, have been continued in the design of the new buildings. The new facades are made with a hard, pale red brick that closely matches the surface of the listed buildings. The five buildings next to each other, all different but obviously related, make a sheer and impressive street elevation.

The plans include a restaurant and administrative offices for the gallery. The building will show exhibitions of the client’s extensive collection of contemporary art, and will be open to the public free of charge.

Peter St John, director, Caruso St John

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Source: Helene Binet

Engineer’s view

Having successfully collaborated with Caruso St John on several gallery projects, including Tate Britain and the V&A Museum of Childhood, we were able to foresee and effectively resolve the engineering challenges associated with this structurally complex set of buildings.

The spatial arrangement of the galleries meant the restraint to the existing walls provided by the floors had to be removed and replaced by a new structure. The new gallery floors are designed to support very heavy loads from artworks, and the low-height basements of the existing buildings had to be deepened to accommodate plant and back-of-house uses.

We considered various approaches with the architect and concluded that a similar structural system for the new and existing buildings was appropriate. This helped link the five separate buildings on the site into a unified whole. The structural concept that emerged was of a freestanding steel frame with composite metal deck floors, sitting inside brick shells.

In the case of the existing buildings, the shells were the original listed masonry walls; for the new buildings, the frame was wrapped in a one-brick-thick solid masonry skin, insulated internally and built with lime mortar. This made it possible to achieve jointless construction that was in tune with the historic masonry. The frames and brick skins are linked with sliding fixings that provide the necessary lateral restraint to the brick walls while letting them move in plane independently of the frame.

One striking feature of the finished scheme is the exposed concrete floors. These had to be of very high quality with few joints. We tackled this demanding brief by designing a reinforced concrete topping slab, separated from the structural slab by an acoustic layer and slip membrane. This allowed the topping concrete to shrink unrestrained without cracking. It also allowed the finished floors to be left until near the end of the contract, reducing the risk of damage by subsequent activities onsite.

The project required engineering that is subtle, innovative and designed to work harmoniously with Caruso St John’s architectural concept.

Simon Bennett, director, Alan Baxter

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Source: Helene Binet

Staircase detail

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Source: Helene Binet

The new staircases have strong material and spatial qualities that complement the reduced materiality of the galleries. 

The walls are constructed of two separate loadbearing full-brick leafs. The interior wall, which supports brick-faced precast lintels and soffits, is a creamy white engineering brick, the external walls a smooth pale red brick. The brick walls were built to much higher tolerances than normal to precisely integrate with the precast units and timber stair. The contractor set up elaborate guide wires and templates to keep the brick true.

The stair handrails are smooth precast concrete units built into the walls. They are loadbearing and colour matched to the brick. All the fittings and fixtures are in steel loadbearing housings also built into the brick walls – nothing is applied to the surface.

The curved brick walls are all headers, as are the soffits, to emphasise the density and mass of the brick while achieving a smooth curve. The straight walls are Flemish bond, and the soffits of openings are a solid bedding plane so the brick walls appear to be a mass of brick that has been carved, rather than stacked. 

Inside, the timber stairs wind up to the second-floor galleries. Made of white-painted spruce and natural oak, they are separated from the brick walls with a 20mm gap, and supported at the half-landings on steel beams. The stairs were prefabricated in Germany to a 3D survey, then carefully inserted into the stairwells. 

The in-situ concrete landings have the same concrete topping slab as the galleries, with a dry shake finish that has been acid-etched and ground to achieve a cloudy appearance. The underside of the landings is finished in painted spruce Triboard. Natural daylight falling from a rooflight above emphasises the stair’s spatial qualities.  

Peter St John, director, Caruso St John

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Newport Street Gallery by Caruso St John

Source: Helene Binet

Project data

Start on site August 2012
Completion June 2015
Form of contract or procurement route SBC/XQ 2011 – Standard Building Contract without Quantities 2011
Location Vauxhall, London
Gross internal floor area 3,500m2
Cost Confidential
Architect Caruso St John
Client Science Ltd
Project architects Rod Heyes, Tim Collett
Project team Adam Caruso, Charles Bedin, Jonas Djernes, Christiane Felber, Kornelia Gysel, Emily Keyte, Paul Maich, Kalle Söderman, Peter St John, Ted Swift, Stephanie Webs, Frank Wössner
Structural engineer/conservation Alan Baxter
M&E consultant Max Fordham
M&E contractor Piggott and Whitfield
Services consultant Max Fordham
Project manager/cost consultant/CDM advisor Jackson Coles
Main contractor Walter Lilly
Access David Bonnett Associates
Approved building inspector BRCS
Precast concrete Cambridge Architectural Precast
Brick-faced precast concrete soffits Sterling Services
Brickwork Grangewood Brickwork
Sloped rooflights Dane Architectural Systems
Flat rooflights Glazing Innovation
Timber stairs and joinery Deutsche Werkstatten
Concrete gallery floors Steysons Granolithic Contractors
Groundworks and in-situ concrete City Basements
Dry-lining David Andrews Construction
CAD software used AutoCAD

 

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