O’Donnell & Tuomey’s warehouse conversion for the Photographers’ Gallery opens up a series of complex spaces and multiple skins, against a dramatic inner London streetscape
We were talking about the day that Oxford Street cracked,” says John Tuomey. “What happened when London’s tectonic plates shifted and this great geological rift appeared.”
He is not recounting an experimental slam poetry event, nor an evening of a more psychedelic kind, but a conversation with the planners at Westminster City Council. “Everybody’s got a bit of poetry in them,” he twinkles. “You just have to reach it.”
And reach it he and his partner, Sheila O’Donnell, clearly did, for the result of these conversations about plates and fissures now stands on the corner of Ramillies Street in central London, in the form of a £3.6 million new home for the Photographers’ Gallery.
The rift in question is the level change between the busiest shopping street in Europe and the quiet back-of-house world that lies to the south down a set of steps, accessed through what can now only be read as a momentous crevasse separating Dorothy Perkins and Next.
“We always thought this change in level made it feel like a crack in the system, a shift to another world,” says O’Donnell, as we walk down what she describes as the crossroads where Oxford Street meets Soho, a short-cut route of service entrances and back doors. A recent public realm improvement by the council has seen it partially tidied, with new granite paving and star-shaped benches, and the arrival of the gallery will no doubt see this treatment extended further down the street — although it would be a shame if its slightly seedy air was completely obliterated, removing the sense of discovery.
For the moment, it feels like you have happened upon a hidden find, a mysterious creature lurking in the backstreets. The building is an intriguingly mutant object, exuding an enigmatic presence that makes you want to get inside and see how it works. A brooding black box perches atop an early 20th century brick warehouse, extending great tongues down each of the two facades. Thick timber-framed windows puncture this smothering skin in three places on its eastern flank, while a single narrow slot juts proudly up at the top of its northern face, rising above the roofline as a beacon to lure in the shoppers — 15,000 of which pass this slot in the street every hour.
“There are so many rooftop extensions in London that look like a bungalow sitting on the roof,” says Tuomey. “Instead, we wanted to cloak the building, really fit one into the other, not just put it on top.”
The architects talk of the metaphor of a camera case, the blackness of photographic plates and hoods, the dark inky world behind the lens. It could be unspeakably naff, but thankfully these allusions are not overwrought in the built product. The black cloak sits proud of the surface of the building, a thick extra layer articulated as a second plane, picking up the subtle brick set-backs in the existing elevation. The windows are framed in deep reveals of Angelim Pedra hardwood, that slide flush into the facade “like the lid of a pencil box”. Bizarrely, it was apparently harder to convince the planners that these interventions would work than it was to get permission for the previous scheme — which would have demolished the whole building.
The Photographers’ Gallery project has a chequered history, which begins in 1998 with a “dazzling” proposal by Erick van Egeraat for the gallery’s old site on Great Newport Street, which would have seen the 17th century building all but destroyed by a soaring glazed frontage. English Heritage stepped in and the plans were dropped, leading to a second competition in 2007 for the current site, which O’Donnell & Tuomey won. This £16 million scheme was a dynamic stack of boxes, 30m high, with portions cantilevered out into the street, a spiral of spacious interlocking galleries pinwheeling off an open circulation core.
The project was too good to be true, and swiftly credit crunched. Instead, what stands here today is an attempt to retain the ambitions of the original conceit, only squeezed into the constricted 10 x 20m floor plate and fixed ceiling heights of the existing building. No mean feat.
It feels like you have happened upon a hidden find, a mysterious creature lurking in the backstreets
With much reduced scope, the challenge was where to focus the attention, and the principal moves now occur at the top and bottom of the building. The whole of the ground floor has been carved out, external walls replaced with glazing and formerly stone-clad columns stripped back to their slender iron cores. A robust black terrazzo plinth runs around the ground-floor elevation, spilling across the surface of the floor and rising up to form a counter top within. “So you feel you’re standing in a black pool up to waist height,” says O’Donnell.
An open-plan café will animate this space, transforming the blank frontage into an alluring goldfish bowl — framing people sitting at the counter in the manner of an Edward Hopper painting — behind which a “democracy wall” of digital screens will show a changing animated artwork.
A large hole has been “quarried” out of the floor for a generous staircase, lined with a thick raw steel balustrade, to descend to the bookshop and print room below.
Developing the plan was akin to a process of archaeological excavation. Tuomey talks of “drilling” into the existing building, carving out niches, pockets, making all the available space “work hard”. A narrow lightwell to the rear of the building proved a serendipitous slot in which to insert the services and lift core — which had to be big enough to take large photographic work, as there was no room for a separate freight lift — off which two fire stairs are set at 90 degrees.
An existing staircase has been refurbished, again with a mild steel sheet balustrade, its top rolled into a tactile handrail on site. There is also space for a winch to hoist up larger works — the response to a jokey recurring request from one of the gallery directors for a dumb waiter. A hatch is built into the roof, through which even bigger photographs can be craned, to make the institution as flexible and attractive as possible for future exhibitors.
Developing the building was akin to the process of archaeological excavation
The circulation forms an L-shaped spine off which everything else is set: a first floor office, followed by a close control gallery — taking advantage of the double layer of structure, being within the existing building — and an education room on the third floor. This has been designed with a large, pivoting wall to allow the space to be separated for different events, offering the opportunity for quirky wedge-shaped spaces along the arc from open to closed, unlike a concertina screen or sliding wall. Finally, two further floors of gallery space are housed in the steel-framed rooftop extension.
The galleries themselves are fairly standard, windowless affairs, although on each level the space creeps around the corner into a little glazed nook, a place to rest and recharge, and sneak a view out on to the street below. “The galleries needed to be as clear and simple as possible,” says Tuomey, “but actually it’s more interesting if there are little niches and viewing points that punctuate the purity of the container, moments of relief to refresh your concentration.”
It is a strategy that the architects have used successfully elsewhere, including at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork, where the volume of the exhibition space projects, allowing the overshooting facade to become a glazed pocket, a brief respite from gallery fatigue.
In Soho, where space was at a premium, these cubby holes have been cleverly inserted into leftover parts of the stairwell, which itself is punctured with occasional windows looking into these interstitial buffers. This forms a “skin within a skin”, reminding you that the building is a series of linings, layered jackets of former uses.
The upper galleries provide the culmination of this journey, although it is interesting that the quality of the spaces changes little. Where you might expect soaring ceiling heights and a shift in atmosphere, you instead find similarly proportioned rooms that echo the form of the warehouse below. The tall picture window does indeed provide thrilling views up the geological crack to Great Titchfield Street and out on to the cluttered rooftops — a fitting view alongside the current exhibition of Edward Burtynsky’s work — but it has been strangely blinkered by the internal walls and ceiling of the gallery. This was not the original intention.
An earlier design proposed a triple-height space here, taking full advantage of the stature of this great window, while the wall tapered out to catch a broader field of view. The gallery’s need for extra storage proved more important than this airy space: both ceiling and wall now run straight into the window, effectively blocking half of its extent. At both the Lyric theatre in Belfast, and the £21.5 million LSE student centre currently on-site, in London, O’Donnell & Tuomey was retained in the design and build contract. Here they worked to Stage E, with no further involvement, and the difference can be felt in places.
While there are bound to be regrets the original scheme never made it to fruition, providing purpose-built galleries in an entrancing interior sequence of the kind this practice crafts so well, there is enough of the spirit of these earlier ambitions to make the project a success. And we can be thankful to the Photographers’ Gallery for maintaining its base here, proving there is more to the alleys of Soho than back doors and sex shops.
Architect O’Donnell & Tuomey
Client The Photographers’ Gallery
Acoustic consultant Acoustics Limited
Architect (detailed design and construction) ADP
Contractor Killby & Gayford
Mechanical and electrical designer Arup Engineering
Structural engineer Morrish & Partners
Cost consultant Huntley Cartwright