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Art galleries have become so associated with found space, with the holes left by urban industrial architecture, that we can begin to think that there is no point in doing them any other way. From the cast iron and grimy brick of New York’s Chelsea and Soho or London’s Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, to the cavernous halls of Tate Modern or Baltic, cultural production has replaced industry and manufacture as the economic driver of the tough edges of the big cities.
Yet the white cube, the purist box, has always been lurking in the background. Despite the seeming obsession with architectural appropriation, the art world still reveals a soft spot for the sheer luxury of those pure white walls, that gentle top light, that ethereal neutrality that speaks of awe, the worship of the object. And money. Jay Jopling’s White Cubes in Hoxton and St James seem to indicate that the real power, the real wealth, still needs coddling in minimalism.
Two new London galleries have recently been built which, although superficially diametric opposites, still expose the attraction of those gleaming new walls.
They are two very different propositions, the first a major addition to an industrial building in north London for one of the city’s most renowned and respected gallerists, Victoria Miro, the second a brisk walk away in the heart of boozy, clubby Shoreditch.
Victoria Miro’s new gallery, conceived as a VIP space complementing her existing gallery next door, is juxtaposed with two of the best examples of found art space the city has to offer. There is the original gallery, designed by Trevor Horne in 2000, a factory with its complex roof structure exposed and celebrated like the vaults of a gothic cathedral, and the more recent Parasol Unit, a hardcore, stripped- back industrial interior that presents one of the most powerful and robust venues around.
The new building crowns the rough brick shells of the old structures in a delightfully incongruous way. Its white walls and shimmering windows seem to float above the grimy fabric. Entered through the existing gallery and via a charmingly suburban and inappropriate decked canal-side terrace at the rear, the journey begins with a shockingly attenuated staircase. The long set of steps presents a truly mannered entry, something that would be at home in an expressionist film or a dream sequence. The ascent ends in a vast gallery that opens out to the city beyond, its far wall replaced by a huge sheet of glass. It is a stunning space, a room dominated by the movement of the clouds across the sky and the ever-changing light of London. It is also a room that relinquishes, in that view, any claims to neutrality. There is no seeing art here, except against the city and in the light.
Beyond the gallery there is true architectural complexity but skill has kept it self-effacing. Apart from a deep atrium dominated by an Ian Hamilton Findlay neon work (which becomes almost a sign for the gallery from the street outside), everything appears simple, serene and resolved. The light is ethereal and exquisite throughout, penetrating every corner. The architect was Michael Drain, who took over the commission from arch-minimalist Claudio Silvestrin. In some circumstances you might wonder how much of the young architect there really is in this scheme, but once you realise that Drain is also responsible for the astonishingly good and utterly different Parasol Unit downstairs you have to acknowledge that this is the work of an architect of real skill. We will, I hope, see much more of him.
The other gallery should be altogether different. Built for inIVA and Autograph ABP, an Arts Council-funded partnership that deals with the art and photography of immigrant and British black culture and of diaspora, the building sets itself apart from its similarly industrial context through a facade of deep and seductive blackness.
The building almost lurks in its surroundings, lying in wait for the Shoreditch night. It is as theatrical in its darkness as Miro’s gallery is in its improbable brilliant whiteness. Its street front comprises a single sheet of glass, a huge shopfront that entices, then excludes. You have to find the entrance down a dark alley; an ingenious sign pivoting out and back into the wall is the only indication that this is a public space. It evokes a kind of clubland seediness, shoehorning exquisitely into its context. A slick café and slightly too slick lobby (the canted concrete desk and stair ensemble more LA than East London) give way to the gallery, a simple single volume.
If Victoria Miro’s gallery is dominated by clouds, then Rivington Place’s background is crowds. The funky psychedelia of the storefront opposite and the buzzy traffic of young creatives gives an otherwise still space constant animation. Squeezed on to the ground floor of a tight urban site, this is a far more public gallery than Miro’s but it is also darker, less mannered and less dramatic. The architect, David Adjaye (himself born in Tanzania), is intimately connected with the art world: he has designed houses for Chris Ofili, Tim Noble and Sue Webster and Juergen Teller, as well as designing spaces in Tate and a demountable pavilion (now in Croatia) with Olafur Eliasson. He has a sophisticated grasp of the demands of displaying art and, although he has become known for radical houses, he holds back here: the art comes first.
It is the building’s presence in the city that strikes you. The facade of black concrete panels is arranged around a complex pattern of windows inset at subtly varying depth. Adjaye plays constantly with size and perspective, treating the walls like the sets in a theatre, weaving elements to create false perspectives. The building appears much larger than it is, the two rows of windows for each floor doubling its apparent height. If the idea was to imply that the effect of immigration and cultural cross-fertilisation allows London’s art to become somehow bigger, richer, more expansive as it becomes more diverse, then Adjaye has built the finest billboard you could imagine, and has created a structure that will become the visual identity of an undervalued and ambitious organisation.
Rivington Place, London EC2, opens October 5. Tel )20 7729 9616
Victoria Miro 14, London N1, Yayoi Kusama exhibition from October 10 – November 17. Tel )20 7336 8109