20 Jun, 2010

Beautiful south

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

London SE5; London SE15

I’m told, by people who don’t suffer from the radical unmusicality which is my personal affliction, that in music pauses are as important as the notes. Something similar is true of architecture. The bits that are not there matter as much as those that are, as if buildings are only completed by the people and actions they contain. You sometimes want the architecture to hold back. What makes bad design offensive is often the urge to fill every space with the decisions of the architect, to determine, finish and close down a place before it is inhabited.

The enlargement of the South London Gallery is a work with a lot of the not-there. It’s often hard to tell where the new work starts and ends. There is no systematic set of details marching through the building. It cannot be summed up in a single memorable image, which possibly makes it look a little boring on the pages of a newspaper. It does not prescribe a single route through the complex, or a single way of occupying its spaces. It is more garden-like – a loosely assembled group of places.

The original South London Gallery, completed in 1891, is a work of late Victorian cultural philanthropy. Located between the humble districts of Peckham and Camberwell, its aim was to enrich the cultural lives of ordinary local people. It was open at weekends, unusual at a time when it was assumed that most people who visited galleries were from leisured, rather than working, classes.

The old gallery building is, essentially, a single fine room, top lit, rectangular and much liked by artists, with one of the biggest uninterrupted walls for the display of art in London. It  has no presence on the street outside, being tucked behind the ornate building that contains the Camberwell College of Arts. It relies for its impact on the imagination on the power of the exhibitions held there – Gilbert and George’s Naked Shit Pictures of 1994 being one that lingers in the memory.

The purpose of the expansion is to provide an education space, a flat for artists in residence, a cafe, and rooms in which art can be shown in different ways to the single fine room. It occupies shards of space to the side of the existing gallery, and a plain greyish Victorian terraced house which, in a typically London juxtaposition, huddles against the flamboyant orange and white art school next door.

The architects are 6a, a practice led by Tom Emerson and Stephanie Macdonald. 6a value subtlety over spectacle, and for them quality of thought and the way a project is made are more important than the creation of an impressive style or image. Older exponents of this attitude include Tony Fretton and, on his less monumental days, David Chipperfield. In their nine-year-long career, 6a have stood out for a particular lightness of touch and playfulness of detail.

At the South London Gallery they chose not to demolish the Victorian house, which was derelict when they started the job. Instead, they kept and selectively exposed pieces of its brick shell, and its rickety carpentry. Shiny new things are put alongside crumbly old things, as well as elements, like handrails and balustrades, that require a second glance to see if they are new or old. Some materials are new, some reused. The artists’ flat is put on the top, a cafe in the ex-living room on the ground floor.

Then, to the rear, a tall square “garden room” is created, with sharply cut windows that give edited views of greenery beyond. Next comes a narrow garden with a winding path, followed by an education room lit from above, whose huge pivoting doors can turn it from a protected box into something at one with the outside. Most of the materials are deliberately basic – “You could get most of this at Travis Perkins,” says Emerson – except for a few details, like some elegant brass door handles of 1920s Hungarian design.

The totality is a gentle, wandering assembly of domestic and institutional spaces where it is never quite clear where gallery starts and house ends. It allows and awaits interpretation by the artists who will use it. It suggests, but it doesn’t prescribe. At times, the cramped proportions of the Victorian house seem too influential on the whole work, but as a pendant to the spacious original gallery its smallness makes sense.

Meanwhile, perched above the churning mud and trucks of London’s Olympic site, another young practice has created a more flamboyant structure. This is Studio East Dining, a restaurant designed to last three weeks. It is perched on top of what will be a car park in the immense Westfield Stratford City shopping development, which is due to open in 2011. It is a creation of Bistrotheque, the east London company that pioneered the idea of “pop-up” – ie temporary – restaurants. The pavilion is designed by Carmody Groarke, the young architects best known for their 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park. Its plan is a starburst, a set of radiating and expanding boxes, whose ceilings slope up towards views of the monuments of turn-of-the-millennium London. One frames the Olympic stadium, currently as beautiful as it will ever be, as its spare steel frame is not yet engulfed in the happy-clappy cladding it is due to receive. There’s also Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre, and more distant views of Canary Wharf and the Gherkin.

The aim was to exploit the views while also creating the inwardness and intimacy that are essential to dining. Unlike the revolving restaurants on flash 1970s hotels, the view does not usurp eating and conversation: instead, the form creates a strong sense of enclosure intensified by the vastness outside, like a cabin on an ocean liner.

The structure is mostly made of things already on the Westfield site. Its frame is scaffolding, with a lining of rough boards that play the role of oak panelling in posh restaurants. Plastic, of a kind used to shrink-wrap steel when it arrives on construction sites, keeps the rain out. Details are not prissy – indeed, the plastic is distinctly botched in places – but perfection is not the point.

What the gallery and the restaurant have in common is a spirit of adaptation and of making use of what is at hand. Also, the sense of being a setting for something – whether art or dining – which the architecture heightens but does not dominate. Neither is passive or dull, but both will become better as they are put to the use for which they were intended. Both show more wit and delight than can be found in most of the billions of pounds of construction that spread below the Studio East pavilion.

Reservations: see studioeastdining.com

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