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New and old are bound together at Caruso St John’s Newport Street Gallery

An act of philanthropy and architectural patronage has resulted in a work of art

The 1985 opening of the Saatchi Gallery on London’s Boundary Road proved a milestone event in the history of British art. Designed by the late Max Gordon, the former paint factory became a contemporary art venue of a scale unknown in the UK – equivalent to an entire floor of the yet-to-be built Tate Modern. It was at this Saatchi Gallery in 1992, that Charles Saatchi himself staged Young British Artists – the exhibition that introduced the world to Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Tracey Emin and the artist who came to be cast as the group’s figurehead, Damien Hirst.

In 2003, Saatchi abandoned Boundary Road for the altogether less resonant setting of County Hall, but the following year Hirst embarked on a project to build a gallery of his own, closely modelled on the character of the venue where he had first secured public attention. Like Boundary Road, the recently opened Newport Street Gallery, in London’s Vauxhall, is a conversion of a complex of former industrial buildings – in this case, a group of early 20th-century theatre workshops – in a part of London that remains something of an urban backwater. At 3,500m2 it is in fact fractionally larger than the old Saatchi Gallery, incorporating six epically dimensioned galleries as well as a shop, restaurant and offices.

Caruso St John's Newport Street Gallery

Caruso St John’s Newport Street Gallery

Caruso St John's Newport Street Gallery site plan

Caruso St John’s Newport Street Gallery site plan

Caruso St John’s Newport Street Gallery site plan

Its programme is to be structured around works in Hirst’s collection, which now runs to more than 3,000 pieces. Including extensive holdings of many of his British contemporaries as well as those of Americans such as Jeff Koons and Richard Prince, it also features an ethnographic section – including a collection of totem poles – and examples of taxidermy and other exhibits that betray Hirst’s more morbid infatuations. Having spent in the region of £25 million on the building, he is also maintaining free admission – if only as an act of philanthropy, Newport Street would rank as a hugely impressive achievement. But Hirst’s project, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Stirling Prize, is also a triumph of architectural patronage.

Designed by Caruso St John, the gallery spaces are simply the most beautiful of their kind in London. They represent the realisation of an organisational idea that the practice first explored in its entry to the 1999 competition for the MAXXI in Rome. In contrast to Zaha Hadid’s winning proposal, the practice envisaged retaining many of the existing single-storey barrack buildings on the site, augmenting them with adjoining structures to establish a spatial sequence, characterised by the contrast between the sizes and roof profiles of successive volumes.

‘A wide cliff of unrelieved brickwork terminates in a Bart Simpson haircut of spikily attenuated rooflights’

At Newport Street, Caruso St John has bookended the three retained workshop buildings with two new buildings. The additions are in brick of a similar reddish tone to the early 20th-century fabric, laid in Flemish bond without expansion joints to achieve a comparably robust expression. Yet while new and old are bound together in one conglomerate, a sense of formal differentiation is maintained between the parts. Each of the older buildings varies in width, roof profile and fenestration, and the additions follow that paratactic logic, adopting faces of their own. The new block that houses offices along with a ground-floor shop employs a simple trabeated expression, surmounted by a monumental cantilevered concrete balcony that surveys the elevated railway line across the street. In acknowledgement of the fact that it houses the entrance, the other is more exuberant: heavily glazed at ground level, it develops into a wide cliff of unrelieved brickwork before terminating in a Bart Simpson haircut of spikily attenuated rooflights.

Designed to enable the hoisting of theatrical flats, the older buildings originally housed single volumes with a height of as much as 15 metres. Caruso St John judged that verticality excessive to the task of displaying artworks, and so subdivided the two taller volumes, achieving a still very imposing 8 metre height downstairs and more than 5 metres above. Only in the central block has the original height been maintained. Rising to a skylight 11 metres above the concrete floor, it is traversed by a minstrel’s gallery linking the upper level rooms to either side.

Compellingly articulated as this sequence is, each gallery remains a quintessential plasterboard-lined white box. Yet, pass into one of the three adjoining stairwells and you enter another world of curvaceous form and intense, tectonic expression. Built in engineered timber, each oval-planned stair climbs the considerable distance from the ground to first floor in two leisurely loops. They are cantilevered off walls of a white Belgian brick, which has been laid in header bond to provide the smoothest curve. The walls’ complex geometry had to be realised to an exceptionally fine tolerance if the stair was to fit, requiring the builders to erect a cage of suspended piano wires, which mapped out their line in advance of construction. The challenge was compounded by the specification of a curving precast concrete handrail, recessed directly into the brickwork, and of brick soffits which, again, were prefabricated off-site. Much as the use of brick evokes the character of the building’s shell, the atmosphere conjured is pointedly non-industrial, offering a clear statement of the gallery’s institutional ambitions.

The one other spectacular interior is a 60-seat restaurant, designed by Hirst and realised with Caruso St John’s help. Dubbed Pharmacy2, the space represents a still more baroque development of the medicinal aesthetic of Hirst’s earlier Pharmacy in Notting Hill. Images of pills are everywhere: waterjet cut in marble and inset into the white terrazzo floor, hand embroidered on the back of banquettes and even deployed in three dimensions as the seats of bar stools. This is the one part of the building where Hirst has given his own imagination free rein and no one could begrudge him that small indulgence.

Newport Street Gallery could easily have become a vanity project but Hirst has proved himself a generous and cannily unobtrusive patron. He has employed one of the best practices working in the world today and gave it the freedom to deliver one of its very finest buildings.

 

Architect: Caruso St John
Client: Damien Hirst
Photographer: Helene Binet, Prudence Cuming Associates

 

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