Phillips’ new premises at 30 Berkeley Square, London, redesigned by Aukett Swanke
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The world of commercial art, a $66bn market propelled by the triumvirate of the big commercial galleries, the auction houses and the validation of works by the blockbuster museums, is booming. The museum, the art institution designed by a global superstar architect, has become de rigueur for any serious city. The commercial gallery, meanwhile, has become a cipher for regeneration. Abandoned industrial spaces that proliferated at the edges of city centres proved perfect for conversion into white-walled, rough-textured gallery spaces for the ever-expanding dimensions of contemporary art. In scale and ambition, these galleries are now vying with the museums.

That just leaves the auction houses. A small elite of art businesses inherited a series of buildings conceived for a different age, when Old Masters hung Academy-style on the walls while Chippendale chairs and Biedermeier desks crowded together in viewing spaces which might double up as sale rooms. There were a few exceptions, notably Diener & Diener’s striking design for the Swiss auction house Stuker in Bern (2003), but largely they remained architecturally conservative.

As the art market exploded at the beginning of the noughties, so the auction houses grew in their ambitions to compete – sometimes controversially – with commercial galleries and cultural institutions. Pre-auction viewings present one of the art world’s great unsung opportunities for viewing art in almost perfect conditions. Without the crush of the big museum shows, lacking the eerie silence of the echoing white cubes, they represent a fleeting chance to catch a wonderful work up close. With sales often timed to coincide with international art fairs, they present to the public some of the finest works of art still in private hands.

And the auction houses are waking up to their own potential and commissioning buildings that allow them to inhabit the same world in the public consciousness as the museums and the galleries.

Nowhere is this development clearer than in Phillips’ new £30m refurbishment of its Berkeley Square building. Most London auction houses started off in old West End properties and gradually grew into ad hoc assemblages of neighbouring properties. This new European HQ shows what can be done by starting over. Contemporary sculpture is displayed in a shop window on a scale to compete with the Rollers and Bugattis in the nearby luxury car showrooms. It gives the auction room a show-stopping window display that the traditionally more intimate auction houses have lacked. It also presents art as a status symbol on a par with the flash motors. There is something almost unsettling about the clarity of the statement, of the presentation of art as a luxury commodity.

Galerie Stuker in Bern, redesigned by Diener & Diener in 2003

The ground-floor gallery is impressive: a double-height, naturally lit space which opens on to a square that hosts prestige events. But it is an odd space for the display of anything other than contemporary sculpture and installation art, and perhaps contemporary design – certainly little use for painting.

More conventional viewing spaces lie elsewhere in the building, some with wonderful views across the London rooftops. What the new building does give the auction house, however, is flexibility. Almost every wall in the building can be shifted to reconfigure spaces, adapting the interior to blockbuster sales, big-scale viewings, private receptions – or all of these simultaneously.

It also features “sky boxes” that ensure the privacy and anonymity of wealthy buyers. This is an architecture of the excitement of proximity to the action, akin to sports or performance. Presence, and the cloaking of that presence, becomes part of the performance.

The Phillips HQ accommodates what is an increasingly complex business model, one that extends well beyond the traditional territory of auction sales. That flexibility, however, also comes with a downside. Designed by corporate specialists Aukett Swanke, this is, despite its scale, a disappointingly bland building. It is striking in its size at least, but it is difficult to imagine an institution or a commercial gallery going for such an anodyne architecture.

Phillips was not the first London auction house to launch a radically rethought London HQ. Last year Bonhams opened its rebuilt HQ with an entrance in Bond Street and a huge new presence in Haunch of Venison Yard. Designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands (designers of the relaunched Foyles bookstore and JW3, London’s Jewish community centre) and also costing around £30m, this is a scheme of greater complexity and more architectural sophistication and richness. Knitted into the dense urban fabric of Mayfair, it contains an extraordinary variety of spaces, from a long corridor in Bond Street to a gallery seemingly influenced by Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Bonhams feels something more akin to a cultural institution, but even here there is a certain lack of grain and texture. The layers of history which could have been keenly felt in this unusual yard seem to have been obliterated in the rush to achieve those big, flexible spaces. Where it does acknowledge the existing fabric (for instance in the retention of a historic façade) it is isolated, left freestanding but apparently without purpose.

Sotheby’s, a short stroll along Bond Street, hasn’t gone for a blockbuster building. Instead, it is slowly updating its collection of about 17 once separate but now contiguous historic buildings.

Sotheby’s S2 Gallery in London designed by David Khon

The newest addition is around the corner in St George Street. The S2 Gallery, designed by London architect David Kohn, is a separate space that allows Sotheby’s to put on shows not related to sales. The original 1970s structure was not promising but Kohn stripped back the bland commercial accommodation to reveal an almost industrial interior. He created a series of intimate, well-proportioned galleries, the thick walls between them lined in silver-stained, elegantly figured timber. At the front a vitrine forms an entrance and a small display, while the window gives the auction house a chance to develop a more visible presence on the Mayfair art scene. It is a small, sophisticated and smart intervention.

It was preceded by an S2 space in New York, a very fine gallery designed by Richard Gluckman, architect of the Dia Center and the superb Picasso museum in Málaga as well as the about-to-be-relaunched Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Unlike the London version, the New York S2 is subsumed within Sotheby’s vast Upper East Side York Avenue HQ but it provides a space in which to show Chelsea-scale exhibitions.

S2 Gallery in London

Meanwhile, Christie’s has just opened its new galleries in its impressive New York home, the Rockefeller Centre. Designed by German-born, New York-based architect Annabelle Selldorf – currently perhaps the most in-demand gallery designer – it is a surprisingly large space, oak-floored and white-walled with its own elegant lobby with light-coloured terrazzo floors and period pendant lights.

The trend looks set to continue. Auction houses are earning an increasing share of their profits from direct sales, whether from wine (Sotheby’s New York has its own huge wine store) or from galleries and private treaty sales, and the more they encroach on the traditional territory of the galleries, the more they are compelled to compete on architectural terms. But it’s still clear that, with a few exceptions, they’ll need to become more sophisticated in their architecture, to commission younger, more provocative architects and eschew the corporate blandness that still seems to plague them if they’re going to make their presence as keenly felt on the city streets as it is on the international art scene.

Main photograph: Roger Spooner/Aukett Swanke

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