Ramillies Street is one of those brick alleys that every building turns its back on. It is a service space, dark, a little dank, inhabited by the hum of air-conditioning units and the rattle of bins and delivery trolleys. Yet it is only a few steps away from Oxford Street and on the northern edge of an otherwise perpetually buzzy Soho. This strange seclusion, the point at which otherwise brash or pompous buildings become unselfconscious, and let their guard down, is actually a huge relief from the commercial crush and clone stores of Oxford Street. But this dingy byway is illuminated by the presence of one of London’s hidden gems, the Photographers’ Gallery, which, after a £9.2m rebuilding, is shining brighter still.
The most obvious sign of transformation in the building is the tall window that now sits atop the structure and looks back down on the crowds of Oxford Street between cracks in the city fabric. The architects, Dublin-based O’Donnell Tuomey, have wrapped the red-brick Victorian warehouse in black render and terrazzo (leaving bits of the original building exposed) to create a striking, sculptural structure that looks much taller and more imposing than its actual six storeys.
The ground floor looks as if the slate-grey tarmac street has been absorbed into its base. A big street-level window opens on to a café and what the gallery calls a digital wall – a screen showing animations, photos and the assorted uses young artists are now putting their omnipresent cameras to.
That wall illustrates something profound about people’s changing relationship with the photographed image. Carrying a camera was once something only professionals or tourists did. Now cameras – through mobile phones – have become ubiquitous and people casually create and carry with them substantial image galleries. The gallery’s director Brett Rogers tells me that it was calculated recently that a cross-section of London art and photography students was looking at 6,000-7,000 images each day on phones, laptops, iPads etc.
In response to the culture of browsing and glancing, Rogers sees the gallery’s role as one of slowing down the encounter with the image. To this end, one room is dedicated to a single image (currently a Jeff Wall), which will change four times a year. A bench encourages contemplation. This tiny gallery can become part of – or be separated from – an education space that itself converts into a camera obscura. It is an intriguing detail, a way of using the most archaic photographic technology to connect the gallery with the city.
The original galleries on the second floor remain little changed (it’s hard to believe they accommodated half a million visitors a year) but the top floor is a revelation. A lofty, high-ceilinged space, illuminated by that attenuated window, it feels big and robust enough to handle the epic-scale pieces produced by the likes of Andreas Gursky and Edward Burtynsky. Indeed, it is the latter’s work on oil that is the rebuilt gallery’s inaugural show, along with a video work by the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective.
Burtynsky’s striking, often shocking photos have become a media cipher for man’s impact on the Earth, yet their very power has, paradoxically, led to an overexposure that now mutes their impact. But while the familiar pictures of Alberta’s apocalyptic oil sands are here, there are also many images that were new to me: endless landscapes of discarded bombers, offshore fires, tyre mountains and swarms of new cars. It is undeniably impressive, if a little predictable as an opener.
There is another gallery of the same size on the floor below and, in the basement, a bookshop, which, if it is as good as its predecessor, will be one of the finest in London. There is also a print room, which doubles as an education facility in which visitors can learn about the intricacies of buying prints.
This is not a flashy building: there are few moves to surprise or even deliberately to delight and I am a little disappointed that the texture of the old structure has been so comprehensively covered up. But it has real urban presence from the outside and a fine sense of scale and simplicity on the inside. The aim is to pedestrianise the street outside and project images on the vast blank brick walls opposite (the gallery is looking for a sponsor).
It is a delicate balance. At the moment the gallery feels like a bit of a secret in the heart of the West End. Even as it strives to lure visitors, it needs to maintain that sense of intimate delight.
Opens May 19