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Picture imperfect

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Losing O’Donnell +Tuomey so early in the process has left the Photographers’ Gallery feeling architecturally light. Photography by Anthony Coleman

This building signposts the future of architecture in the UK: where once there was to be a new build, there now stands a retrofit with a small extension on top. And where once buildings such as this one – a key player in London’s fizzing arts sector – would have retained the concept architects until the last lick of paint was dry, here, they waved goodbye at stage E.

Thankfully, it was O’Donnell and Tuomey, Ireland’s most consistently excellent practice over the past 10 or so years, that laid the ground rules here. So the £9.2 million Photographers’ Gallery has turned out OK. But should we be OK with ‘just OK’?

The truth is that O’Donnell + Tuomey, whose Lyric Theatre in Belfast should fairly be Stirling-shortlisted this year, is unlikely to herald this project too loudly, even if it is the architect’s first completed in England.

Unlike the Lyric or any of its other significant projects, which feel architecturally heavy in the very best sense, this one feels light. But there are very good reasons why that is the case.

A ‘crack’ in London’s tectonic plate has helped shape the building’s form

The story begins in 2007, and a competition won by the Irish firm to design a £16 million new-build for the gallery on a site on the corner of Ramillies Street in central London. That scheme – a 30-metre pile of stacked boxes with a double-height top floor with views up a narrow alleyway towards Oxford Street – won planning in December 2007 and was dropped in April 2009, kyboshed by the credit crunch.

A revised, smaller refurbishment and conversion of a former Victorian warehouse, which still included the proposed three exhibition galleries, was conceived, bolstered by a two-storey roof extension that would still allow for a view up the alley. Now, instead of a cantilevered stack, the design was for a red-brick warehouse linked to a steel-framed addition and an external sleeve of black render reaching down to a ground floor. This would be defined by black terrazzo, Angelim Pedra wood, and big windows framing a corner café.

ADP was named the executive architect to see the project through to completion. When planning approval was granted in March two years ago, a spokesman for the gallery said: ‘[The new scheme will] enable us to continue with our commitment to providing three new dedicated exhibition galleries, a floor for on-site education activities and also room to continue our bookshop, café and print sales.’ And then with typical, meaningless over-the-topness, added: ‘The approved submission still provides London with a world-class gallery and a cultural oasis within the heart of the capital.’

It’s a horrible term, but the only part of the building that is ‘world-class’ (let’s just say ‘very good’) is at street level. Its sculpted polished black terrazzo entrance gives access to an open-plan space that connects the ground level café and lower ground bookshop to the street. The wide staircase and thick-dimensioned elements of the room such as deep window reveals, the hefty steel balustrade, and the reception counter built from a heavy block of the same black terrazzo as the floor, make this space seem more than just purposeful. This part feels solid and heavy and appears carefully done. It is also an example of good urban design.

The gallery’s location, on the fringes of Soho, is all about the thinness of Ramillies Street and the part-pedestrianised section that leads up steps to Oxford Street. To the architect, this service alley is a ‘crack’ in London’s tectonic plates that has given shape to much of the building’s form and the placement of its large picture windows. At street level, the mix of wood, render, terrazzo and glass responds to the patchwork context and has made a place out of a once dead corner.

Up high from the top floor gallery, you can glimpse the return of Amanda Levete’s fancy facade for 10 Hills Place, the nearby rooftops, and the silly star-shaped seating near the north end of Ramillies Street.  However, if you compare the original scheme with what was built, you can see where the problems have arisen. This picture window was originally meant to be three-storeys high, which it still is, albeit marred by a loft space used for storage that blocks off two thirds of the view. Oops.

The galleries themselves seem purposeful and no more; light, even thin, in the same way the ground floor is heavy and thick. This is especially true in the converted portion of the building, although a huge pivot door in the education suite on the third floor has been carefully judged.

Dumping the architect who designed the scheme so early in
the process is never a good idea. Remember FAT’s BBC studio project in Cardiff? That was a similar story. ADP has done a reasonable job here on Ramillies Street but there is a sense the overall quality would have benefited if O’Donnell + Tuomey had been retained. If this is the way we’re going to do cultural buildings from now on – buildings that should be very good, rather than just OK – keeping the concept architect on board is the least we should
expect from our clients.

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for the Photographers’ Gallery, London by O’Donnell + Tuomey

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