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Tuesday22 August 2017

South London Gallery by 6a Architects

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6a’s commission to create a café and flat for the South London Gallery evolved into something more ambitious, while still retaining the building’s domestic character.

In the past 15 years, Britain’s museums and galleries have enjoyed a level of capital investment unseen since the 19th century. Long overdue demands for disabled access have been answered; environmental controls improved; temporary exhibition space provided where there was none. Perhaps most noticeably, education, café and retail facilities have been expanded in response to revised expectations of these institutions’ dependency on public subsidy. Buildings that were once bastions of connosieurship now look like Heathrow on a bank holiday – a success, of sorts, that it might be thought churlish to resist.

And yet I confess that it is not without a flash of nostalgia that I recall the time before the “ace caff with quite a nice museum attached” model found such blanket application. Certainly, as the wave of capital investment rolled out, an institution like the obdurately unreconstructed South London Gallery came to look like a rather happy anachronism. Established in 1891, on a site midway between Camberwell and Peckham, the SLG was a product of its founders’ mission to expose a local, working-class audience to the latest innovations in fine and applied arts. It took the form of a single, very generously scaled gallery – a toplit brick box, concealed from Peckham Road behind the house of its director.

Soon afterwards, however, the philanthropist, John Passmore Edwards, funded the construction of a technical college on the site – an institution that would ultimately transform itself into the celebrated Camberwell College of Arts. Designed, like the gallery, by architect Maurice Adams, the college building was actually constructed in place of the director’s house with the effect that the gallery’s sole connection to the street became a long corridor that cut through its neighbour’s plan before punching an opening at one end of its facade.

The period during which the two institutions operated under a single administration lasted less than a decade but their intimate architectural connection remains to the present day. From the gallery’s perspective this must often have seemed a less than ideal state of affairs, denying it a prominent identity on the street and constraining any ambitions it had towards expansion. And yet the startling experience of discovering this grand room at the end of a corridor in one of the capital’s more hidden-away corners has consistently fired the imaginations of artists. When, in the early nineties, the SLG refocused its energies on the display of contemporary art, it came very much into its own, staging seminal exhibitions of the work of the YBA generation while also luring figures as established as Anselm Kiefer and Gilbert & George to show in darkest SE5.

The architect has evidently relished the rough material characteristics of the original building

Six years ago, the gallery’s disabled access was upgraded and a storeroom transformed into a modest education space but, otherwise, everything remained much as it stood a century ago. It might have remained in that condition were it not that the local authority, Southwark Council, owned the neighbouring Victorian house. By the turn of the millennium, this building had fallen into a state of advanced dereliction, with the consequence that the gallery managed to persuade the council to give it to them, initially on the understanding that Will Alsop would undertake a characteristically demonstrative remodeling. The funding for that project never materialised but by 2006, the gallery was in a position to proceed with a more straightforward refurbishment for which it appointed 6a Architects. At first the architect’s brief was simply to create a café on the house’s ground floor with a flat for artists in residence above, but over the course of design development the gallery’s ambitions expanded significantly. The project it has ended up building extends well beyond the volume of the house, and at a contract value of £1.3 million has cost three times as much as the initial budget.

Margot Heller, the gallery’s director, was keen that the house should retain a domestic character, and this has certainly been achieved. Its internal fabric is in fact almost entirely new but the arrangement of spaces holds broadly to that which existed before. The architect has evidently relished the rough material characteristics of the original building – existing floorboards have been reused, brickwork left exposed and, on the upper floor, the ceiling omitted to reveal a field of joists of spectacularly ramshackle construction. However, the new elements that have been added are of an altogether more refined nature. Doors and balustrades are detailed to more exacting tolerances than your average jobbing Victorian joiner would put up with although their white painted finish ensures they don’t ultimately depart too far from familiar domestic imagery.

As 6A demonstrated in last year’s conversion into a gallery of two Huguenot houses at Raven Row in east London (Works March 6, 2009) it also has a particularly keen eye for the way that ironmongery and light fittings can subtly adjust the sensibility of a found space. As at Raven Row, the practice has selected – and in some cases designed – components whose extreme economy of form liberates them from close association with a particular period, a principle that is supported by its preference for bronze finishes over a more emphatically contemporary choice such as stainless steel. Brass-topped café tables represent a measured extension of this palette, the treatment having been chosen in eager anticipation of the patina that will accrue.

Beyond its work within the house’s shell, 6a has introduced two new elements to the SLG site. The first is effectively a super-scaled house extension – a one-room-wide volume that rises to the house’s eaves and slips out along the gallery’s blank side wall for 12m. This provides the link between the two buildings in the form of a double-height ground floor room that can serve either as a supplementary gallery or as a functions venue. Fully glazed at ground level, this space’s principal affiliation is to the garden but it also proves a successful means of mediating between the divergent scales of the adjoining architectures. Its exaggerated height – it is twice as tall as it is wide – provides an effective answer to the gallery’s monumentality, while its exposed-joist ceiling and high-level portrait format windows reference the house’s comparatively diminutive character.

Externally, the block presents a tripartite image – glazed on the ground floor and sporting subtly differing cladding treatments on its two upper levels. The same fibrous cement panel is employed on both but on the top floor – which accommodates an extension of the apartment – these are mounted flush while on the section below they are expressed as overlapping shingles. This surface has been lent a particularly highly tailored quality by the use of two differing shades of dark brown tile, the expression of a bespoke brass clip that holds each one in place, and the shuffling of each course fractionally to the left of the one below it with the effect that the tiles’ vertical joints follow a steeply raking trajectory.

There is a distinct flavour of Frank Gehry’s early domestic work in all this

There is a distinct flavour of Frank Gehry’s early domestic work in all this, an association consolidated by the handling of the small roof terrace onto which the apartment opens out. Having cut this volume out of the building, the architect has ghosted it back in as a cage-like enclosure of vertical timber studs set within a galvanised steel frame. It supports a glass balustrade on the block’s narrow elevation, and a full-height wall of obscured glass to prevent overlooking into the neighbouring garden on the other. And yet its function is as much rhetorical as practical – a crown that relates to the active roofscapes of the gallery and college buildings and a symbolic declaration of the structure that 6a has, elsewhere, so beautifully dressed.

The project’s other new-build element is reached through a doorway that has been cut into the tall brick wall that closes the end of the garden. This wall is all that remains of a library and lecture theatre that was built one year after the gallery opened but which fell victim to a German bomb during the second world war. 6a has, in effect, reinstated the lost volume in the form of a large hall which will allow the gallery to conduct a much expanded education programme. On the garden side all we can see of it is a single bar-like rooflight projecting up above the windowless expanse of retained brick. However, the hall’s principal elevation is to a yard at the back of the gallery – a space that is used for assembling artworks prior to their installation and as a spill-out area on opening nights.

Although of notably squatter proportions than the house extension, this facade draws on the same essential language, once more employing fibrous cement panels in flush and shingled bands. Also like the other block, the lowest of its three strata maintains a high degree of communication between inside and out. That proved harder to achieve at this end of the site as its relatively secluded situation presented major concerns about security. 6a was determined to avoid the use of roller shutters and has met that challenge by means of a captivatingly toy-like system of pivoting panels. To see a knowing pair of hands manipulate the building out of its fortified state is to experience all the thrill of a good magic trick.

Given that the SLG’s appeal has historically had so much to do with the very immediate relationship that it allows visitors to forge with the work on display, it is fair to say that there were significant risks involved in adding additional programmes to the site. And yet, the project succeeds magnificently. Key to that achievement is the fact that – despite the original gallery being little more than a single room, and the scale of 6a’s additions being quite modest – the reconfigured SLG conveys the image of a campus of independent buildings rather than a single conglomerate. These various elements – some old, some new – have been shepherded with great care into a legible hierarchy, with the effect that the gallery’s primary status is ultimately preserved.

Pay a visit before September 5, however, and you will have an opportunity to see many of these judgments slyly subverted. The tremendous opening show, Nothing Lasts Forever, is an exhibition of wall drawings by 20 artists, which extends into every single space on the site. And beyond it too. Yinka Shonibare’s work covers the side elevation of a tower block that is visible from the gallery’s yard, extending the SLG emergent campus just a little bit further into the world.

Project team

Architect 6a Architects, Client South London Gallery, Structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates, M&E engineer Serge Lai Engineers, Quantity surveyor Stockdale, Main contractor John Perkins Projects

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