Conservation chic

Respecting the character of buildings when redeveloping them as exhibition spaces can be a recipe for success. Lydia Fulton looks at three London galleries where the spirit of preservation is alive and well

The seemingly untouched appearance of three of London’s century-old galleries makes an intriguing backdrop for viewing contemporary art, which is exerting an influence on the changing approach to gallery design.

Increasingly, the dialogue between work displayed and interior architecture, as fuelled by landmark successes such as the Unilever Series at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, is proving a hit with visitors. Jules Wright, owner and curator of the Wapping Project, an art space in London Docklands, first viewed the neglected site in autumn 1992. ‘It was astonishing,’ says Wright. ‘The structure of the building was there, but it had no roof at the time so everything was completely covered in moss.’ It was a derelict building among which sat old tea mugs that had collected incredible fungus, yet the potential of the space was obvious to Wright. ‘I wasn’t looking for a building at the time,’ she claims, ‘but I did become obsessed by this one.’ The site was transformed from a disused power station into a centre for the arts and a restaurant, with as few alterations as possible.

Wright was at the helm of a growing trend among gallery owners to commission a design that emphasised the building’s original characteristics, rather than create blank white spaces. Shed 54, founded by Joshua Wright, was the designer responsible for the appearance of the Wapping Project. The treatment of the Grade II-listed interior ensured constant reminders of the working history of the site remain dotted inside, from industrial machinery to cogs and exposed pipes. Original features such as the old water pipes rub up against the open brickwork, upon which art is exhibited directly. This draws attention to the industrial aesthetic and creates an unrivalled viewing experience, contrasting that which you would expect to find in any other gallery. The design leads you from the initial vast area, used as a restaurant, to a metal stairway overlooking the boilerhouse. The immensity and drama of the boilerhouse hits you and recollects the working history of the site.

Such spaces often draw site-specific installation work/ the Wapping Project staged Anya Gallacio’s melting ice block in 1995, yet the gallery also works well when displaying large-scale contemporary works, juxtaposed against its unadorned interior. Recently, graphic designer Jonathan Ellery of Browns staged a show; next in the programme is a retrospective of the British film-maker Margaret Williams, and an Andy Warhol exhibition is scheduled for later in the year.

The spirit of conservation is also alive in another part of the East End, at the Whitechapel Gallery. Completed in 1901, the Whitechapel was the first purpose-built contemporary art gallery, and has remained largely untouched until now, when a £10m development project is underway. The project, headed by Belgian architect Robbrecht en Daem, is due for completion in 2008, and involves a move into the former Whitechapel Library next door (now relocated at the David Adjaye-designed Idea Store). In this spirit of emphasising architectural heritage, all the library’s Victorian features will be retained. Robbrecht en Daem is working in collaboration with the artist Rachel Whiteread to design the additional exhibition spaces, which will increase the gallery’s size by a hefty 78 per cent. During the 18-month building project, in which the main entrance is being reworked, the Whitechapel has retitled itself the Whitechapel Laboratory, and its programme of exhibitions and events continues so that visitors can experience the building project as it proceeds.

An organic reminder of the narrative of the space is also evident at Elms Lester’s Painting Rooms in Soho. Like Wapping, the exterior of Elms Lester’s gives no clues as to what’s inside and, as such, the experience of entering the site is unlike entering any normal gallery. The century-old painting rooms almost bankrupted Elms Lester in 1901 when the rooms were completed. Paul Jones took over the space in 1984 and has since run the rooms as a centre for fine and applied arts with his partner Fiona Jones and his two eldest sons.

‘We try to keep our influence to a minimum,’ says Jones. ‘The building has its own powerful character’. As at the Wapping Project, there are hidden sections to discover. The incredible high ceilings in the open studio area are the first surprise, followed by the 10m-high glass roofs in the painting studios. This area, originally used by scenic artists, is now more commonly frequented by graffiti artists, such as Adam Neate, whom Jones represents.

The ground floor now acts as a crisp, white renovated gallery space, while upstairs the original style of the painting rooms shines through. ‘We were keen to create two different environments,’ Jones explains. The gallery exhibits contemporary work, often focusing on themes outside of the mainstream whose content is juxtaposed with the age of the gallery. As spaces for exhibiting art become more diverse, these pioneering galleries prove that strong architecture is a good ingredient for curatorial success.

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