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‘Newport Street is the best-conceived gallery design since Hepworth Wakefield’

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Why can’t Caruso St John’s fine balance of new and historic at Newport Street Gallery be the norm for regeneration schemes? asks Jay Merrick

Imagine a ghostly William Blake floating past the Newport Street Gallery in Lambeth. What might he think of it, and the area around it? His shade would certainly have an opinion: at the end of the 18th century Blake lived at 13 Hercules Buildings, two minutes’ walk north of Caruso St John’s Stirling Prize finalist; and between 1791 and 1800, while producing works including Songs of Innocence and Experience, he watched local arable land and marshes begin their evolution into a proto-industrial area. 

Today, Blake’s ‘fearful symmetry’ applies not to Tygers burning bright but to glinting high-rises, as parcels of Lambeth’s urban fabric morph into I’m-All-Right-Jack real estate. It’s difficult, therefore, to judge the gallery’s architecture and wider value purely in terms of the quality of its response to its brief, and to standard contextual issues such as local history and building types, townscape, relative scales, and materiality.

Gentrification and art have become feverishly connected

The same difficulty was apparent with the completion of Tate Modern in 2000, and in projects such as Tony Fretton’s Lisson Gallery extension in 1992, in what he described as a ‘banal’ part of London. Today, an unremarkable two-bed flat in the same street as the Lisson Gallery is advertised at more than £1 million. In the Noughties, fairy-dust released by the White Cube galleries in Hoxton and Bermondsey helped to accelerate the property prices and trendiness of their locales. The creation of art galleries in areas initially marketed as edgy or funky has not created a new building type, so much as architecture as socio-commercial prompt. Gentrification and art have become as feverishly connected as the in flagrante bodies in Jeff on Top Pulling Out, one of Jeff Koons’s artworks currently on show at the Newport Street Gallery. 

Do the architecture of the gallery and the qualities of its presence transcend the new social and financial aspirations fulminating around it? Should they necessarily do so? Is it enough to know that the design is highly intelligent in its sensitivities to place, spatial arrangement, and materials; and that it doesn’t look or feel like a foreign body in Lambeth; and that it is the best-conceived gallery design since David Chipperfield’s Hepworth Wakefield, a Stirling Prize finalist in 2012?

Leaving those questions aside, the architecture of the Newport Street Gallery is, in passing, a shaming critique of most of the recent new build and adaptive re-use schemes in this part of London. The gallery is certainly implicated in gentrification, but its architecture is true to place in terms of the historical continuity of its site. It’s a palimpsest that is also a sophisticated act of formal and programmatic creation: simple moves of great spatial and atmospheric clarity dovetailing, in the case of the two circular staircases, with exquisitely haptic tectonic elements.

This craft element remains rare in British architecture. Caruso St John is among a handful of British practices who are obsessed with both finely crafted materials and details, and the value and resonances of original fabric. In the commercial sector Eric Parry has been producing the architectural equivalents of Savile Row suits tailored in original, if not vivid ways. Smaller practices such as Witherford Watson Mann, MaccreanorLavington and Lynch Architects pursue refined but expressive materiality in relation to historical precedent. 

 

That approach to architecture is not à la mode in 2016; ours is a novate-and-whack-it-up design and construction environment which too often produces over-egged ‘landmark’ objects sheathed or knobbled with happy-clappy, Pantone-bright features. This kind of ‘architecture’ radiates a peculiarly temporary feel. Buildings of this type – and they tend to dominate regeneration projects – are like stage props that have little or no relationship with what existed before; and they fail utterly to generate a sense of meaningful progression of places into the future.

They are the Janus-flipside of the increasing appetite for branded historical or cultural experiences that might last an hour or two, a day-out at most. We are at risk of losing any meaningful and quotidian sense of these qualities around us; the commodification of history and culture into entertainments encourages matching urban tableaux. Regeneration in Britain is quite evidently producing more and more second-rate, unplacemaking architecture; excellent new or adaptive architecture in ordinary settings remains extremely rare. We can find telling proof even in the history of the Stirling Prize. There have been 121 buildings shortlisted for the award since 1996, and the vast majority fall into the category of set-piece architecture. Newport Street Gallery is the first Stirling nominee which has involved adaptation and extension of an existing historic building in an inner-city setting. 

It’s very difficult to judge how the gallery will weigh up against the other shortlisted projects. The two Oxford schemes are impressive set-pieces; the rigorously ordered Glasgow campus has created a distinctive new domain in the city; the high-density housing in south London seems to carry on (in an architecturally articulate way) the social conscience implicit in Níall McLaughlin’s Darbishire Place last year; and the one private house seems to be a conscientiously purified, neo-1930s Modernist addition to a beautiful seven-acre rural site. 

Must buildings like the Newport Street Gallery continue to be regarded as comfortingly remarkable singularities?

One hopes that Caruso St John’s rejuvenation of the Grade II-listed Edwardian former scenery painting workshop is not discussed by the Stirling jury simply as a ‘fine’ example of adaptive re-use; nor even as proof that the practice remains ‘outstanding’ in its refined balancing of new and historic fabric. There is an attendant polemical question: must buildings like the Newport Street Gallery continue to be regarded as comfortingly remarkable singularities in the urban scenery studios of those who develop, and approve, regeneration schemes?

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, produced the year before William Blake moved to the Hercules Buildings, he wrote: ‘Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.’ His ghost would have no difficulty ascribing Attraction to the Newport Street Gallery, and Repulsion to the architecturally spivvy hotels and apartment towers rising to the south and north. But he also said: ‘You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.’

Jay Merrick is architecture critic of The Independent

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