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Whitechapel Gallery, East London by Robbrecht en Daem

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Robbrecht en Daem has doubled the size of the Whitechapel Gallery. But, says Kester Rattenbury, you can scarcely see how it was done. Photography by Edmund Sumner

The remodelling of East London’s Whitechapel Gallery by Belgian architect Robbrecht en Daem is one of those invisible bits of architecture that some people are never going to believe exists. They’ll say it has no form, no exterior, no expression – not even a wobbly wall. Others, like me, will absolutely rave over it, saying that the best aspects of its architecture – strategies, qualities, ideas, circulation, even its spaces – just don’t fit into photo-shaped nuggets.

To see this as a project restricted by compromises fails to grasp what Robbrecht en Daem so expertly does (and what Witherford Watson Mann, acting as local architect, may be coming to). This is to ruthlessly, minimally adjust the context until ‘found space’ has the tension and complexity of the most expressive buildings, baroque or brutalist. Although it also designs many beautiful, surprising new buildings, found space is peculiar to Robbrecht en Daem. Found space is not just left alone (rare enough), but intensified. What might be called compromises actually generate extraordinary places.

The practice does all this without appearing to have changed anything much at all. There is, mysteriously, twice as much Whitechapel, and the gallery’s jammed-up circulation suddenly works. You find yourself looking at normal things – skylights, stairs, views through windows – like they’re art.

It’s easy to write all this off as part of the art experience, rather than recognise the Whitechapel extension as the consummate architectural vanishing trick it is. When I exclaimed over the beauty of the fourth ‘slipped’ rooflight in the ground-floor gallery – one of the most exquisite bits of what practice director Paul Robbrecht calls ‘finger work’ – he looked grimly pleased and dragged me towards the gallery’s PR. ‘Tell her!’ he said.

‘Adjusting spaces is what we do,’ says Robbrecht. ‘We are working in history’

Robbrecht en Daem was an inspired choice from a great shortlist, which also included Caruso St John, Lacaton and Vassal, Patel Taylor, dRMM and Foreign Office Architects. The Belgian firm came to prominence with its pavilion gallery for the German Documenta art festival in 1992, and has collaborated with artists ever since – from the Rubensplein on the windy Belgian coast at Knokke with Franz West (2004), to neo-expressionist rooflights with Cristina Iglesias on the Katoen Natie building in Antwerp (2001).

Robbrecht is the last person to be troubled by the fact that the threading together of the existing Whitechapel buildings offered no room for statement architecture. ‘Adjusting spaces is what we do,’ he says. ‘We are always intervening in spaces which already had some kind of history. We are working in history.’

If you don’t know Robbrecht en Daem’s work, its website is a great place to start. You enter a movie of a dreamlike, half-abandoned, timber factory. Elsewhere inside the building, you find its roof missing; a pond and garden growing inside it; an austere, plain office overlooking it. This is Robbrecht’s studio and house. ‘A poor area,’ he describes it, ‘with many lost places, where work has vanished… a famous wood firm of the ’60s.’

East London’s Whitechapel is another area where history – social and economic – is absolutely palpable. Located just in the shadow of the cliff edge of the City of London and re-cut by 1960s road layouts, the gallery and the slightly older Passmore Edwards Library next door are social landmarks – expressive, philanthropic public buildings in a highly mixed area.

The problematic history of these two buildings was right up Robbrecht’s street

Trapped in its long slot, each of the Whitechapel’s galleries was dependent on circulation through the others. When the lovely old library next door was made obsolete by David Adjaye’s Idea Store in 2005, the Whitechapel Gallery grabbed the opportunity to buy it. The two buildings are different in language: the library expressive, Dutch-ish late Victorian; the 1901 gallery distinctive Art Workers Guild.

Yet their plans, composition, mass and even spaces are as self-similar as the old terraces they interrupt. Both buildings set up – and overturn – their own symmetry, through roofline or entrance. They fill their deep plot, with four storeys along the High Street and galleries/reading rooms in the backlands. Both buildings once had a tiny lightwell to the eastern perimeter. A rambling, freeform roofscape covers them: ‘a kind of topography’.

The physical, problematic history of these two buildings was right up Robbrecht’s street. Among the warren of deep-plan rooms were gallery spaces matching the pair in the Whitechapel itself. Robbrecht picked up this imperfect ‘glide’ symmetry (or wallpaper pattern) of repeated plans, making a loose, double-paired route, almost baroque in its sequence of spaces, yet never formal or mannered.

Looking at the plans for this project is instructive. Not only has the physical space and the number of galleries doubled, but an absolute mass of servicing has been squeezed into the remaining spaces. Lifts, services, access facilities, toilets – plus, the two buildings are on different levels. On plan, the refurbished version is clearly several times more busy, more fiercely serviced than before. Yet as a visitor, the experience is a purer, better version of what was always there, but with those occasional ‘fingers’ that have the conceptual authority of artworks in themselves.

Robbrecht en Daem does all this by privileging the main gallery spaces, and intensifying and purifying the slight, distinct differences of their shape and space. The firm’s casual circulation takes up the old, twisting route and doubles it, picking up matching, smaller gallery spaces and tying the loops together to form a more flexible net.

As you walk round, ‘the scale changes from very small to very wide,’ says Robbrecht. ‘It’s organic, using the human instinct of looking right and left to find their way.’ It’s complex but utterly casual.

William Mann of Witherford Watson Mann, whose firm has been on the team for this project from the start, says this is an integral part of all Robbrecht en Daem’s galleries. Even in the Documenta project, the disingenuous little gallery pavilions were entered at the corners, interrupting wall and space as little as possible. ‘Everything is focused toward the experience of looking at the art,’ says Mann.

From the Whitechapel Gallery’s old entrance, you glance diagonally across to the old library staircase. Robbrecht’s exquisite, stripped-down version of the traditional stair is beautifully patched with the cast-iron balustrade and turned handrail of its original. The stairwell is top-lit – a truncated pyramid rooflight – and side windows show you the sooty brickwork parapets of Whitechapel outside. ‘You use roofs and rooflights to make places on a tour,’ says Robbrecht.

The main ground-floor gallery, ahead of the Whitechapel entrance, now feels bigger. Its entrance screen wall and doors have been stripped out; its two lines of rooflights look sharp, geometrical. Amazingly, the loose topography of the roofscape means even ground-floor galleries are top-lit differently, emphasising their distinct, impure geometries, ‘exploring their differences’.

The new gallery in the library, once its own gallery, will now be used for special commissions. The ‘Greek cross’ form of the roof beams is emphasised by the four exquisite rooflights, one in each corner, one ‘slipped’. This looks like an art piece in itself – as beautiful, as conceptual – but actually, it’s dropped because the neighbouring building has rights of light in what was the old lightwell. That’s compromise as high art.

The imperfect symmetry of the spaces heightens the sense of déjà vu

Between these galleries, you can now move in different ways: directly (through a lobby) at the back; via the old route, up the staircase leading through the small gallery, into the original long upper gallery; or up the lovely hybrid library staircase, through its own smaller gallery space, into the old local museum. This gallery is deep-lined, its old roof structure sitting in a ‘churchy’ niche, which has a faint comic echo of the new squint doorway that slips out of the corner towards the long gallery.

The curious, imperfect symmetry of the spaces somehow heightens the sense of déjà vu. Because they’re always top-lit, it’s also easy to forget which floor the last one was on. But this only intensifies the odd state of mind you need for looking at art. Robbrecht says that the galleries are even painted in different shades of white. You’ll never see the difference, he adds, but it changes how you feel about the space anyway.

Where galleries are abstract and introspective, the route can open up; windows give cropped, oblique views of the characteristic brickwork of Whitechapel. But it’s not till you wind up to the top-floor education rooms that the route opens on to a spectacular fourth-floor roofscape. To the south, a big window opens behind the restored gable of the library. To the north, the view opens over the topography of the gallery’s roofscape to the very edge of the City. Gorgeous, over-scaled modernist timber windows and doors (typical of Robbrecht en Daem) slide away to make this last room a great big architectural toy.

With an institution like the Whitechapel Gallery, the issue is usually whether the architect will muck it up. Far from it, Robbrecht en Daem and Witherford Watson Mann have made it a far better, more intriguing and complex version of what it was before. It’s an eccentric, instinctive, compositional sequence. ‘Very English,’ says Robbrecht, but he quotes the English heroes of the atypical: John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery; the Smithsons; Nicholas Hawksmoor – that peculiar mix of the normal and the extraordinary.

I don’t think any of this is going to stop the wobbly-wall faction from seeing this as a very nice, Disability Discrimination Act-meeting job without much room for architecture. But for those of us interested in pieces of architecture that aren’t pure form – experiences rather than expressions – this is a project of genius. The more so because you can scarcely see how it was done.

Start on site date June 2007
Contract duration 21 months
Gross external floor area 3,000m²
Form of contract JCT 98
Total cost £6.4 milllion
Client Trustees of the Whitechapel Art Gallery
Architect Robbrecht en Daem and Witherford Watson Mann
Structural engineer Price and Myers
Services engineer Max Fordham
Conservation architect Richard Griffiths Architects
Project manager Mott MacDonald
Quantity surveyor Davis Langdon
Planning supervisor Tetra Consulting
Main contractor Wallis Special Projects
Access consultant David Bonnett Associates
External lighting Jason Bruges Studio
Annual CO² emissions Not supplied


Whitechapel Gallery, East London by Robbrecht en Daem

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Everything I've heard about this refurb/ extension makes it sound amazing. When does it open to the public?

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