Newport Street Gallery
By Alice Haugh
Newport Street Gallery represents the culmination of a long-cherished project of British artist Damien Hirst. Vauxhall may not be the obvious location for a glamorous new arts complex, but its selection is symbolic of a physical shift in the city’s art scene, from east towards south and west London. Few architects have enjoyed the fruits of this cultural shift more fully than Caruso St John, now almost the default choice for London’s gallery scene. With the £45 million renovation works to Tate Britain Milbank they briefly abandoned their austere rigor in favor of some playful Art Deco-tinged decoration. But Newport Street sees the practice return to a restrained, almost Nordic modernism of solidity, civic scale and sleek detailing.
Newport Street Gallery lies parallel to the railway arches that snake through a low-rise council estate into Vauxhall train station. Public access is free, the space serving as a showcase for Hirst’s extensive collection of other artists’ work. Comprising the entire length of the street, the gallery complex is housed in a series of five distinct volumes – three listed Victorian warehouses have been converted and bookended a pair of new brick structures, one containing the entrance lobby and restaurant, the other offices. Caruso St John has extended the buildings with hard pale red brick that closely matches the surface of the existing facades. This cool exterior conceals moments of surprising exuberance within, notably the grand staircase, and a flamboyant pop-art restaurant – Pharmacy 2 – which was designed in collaboration with Hirst himself and opened last month.
At 37,000 square feet the gallery is expansive, its display rooms spanning two levels and four of the five buildings. The three existing structures contained theatre carpentry and scenery painting studios – purpose built in 1913 – which the architects have reduced in height to make them more intimate for viewing artworks.
|The [original] spaces were too big to be used as galleries – now there is a lot of flexibility in the scale and arrangement of the galleries.”|
|/Peter St John. Founding Partner|
The cavernous pre-existing spaces have been subdivided to create a series of six rooms spread over two floors, all of which retain lofty ceiling heights and large openings for natural light. Linking these together is perhaps the most sensuous feature of the building – the stairs. Here Caruso St John has created complex, sculptural spaces encased in creamy brick and employed a meticulous detail which sets the handrail into the curving brick wall. The overall effect is one of understated glamour – crisp modernism crossed with Art Deco luxuriance – and although the budget is undisclosed, one imagines that this could be achieved only at great expense.
The building’s exterior emphasizes its industrial heritage through the use of a saw-tooth roof profile and basic brick construction that reveals itself to be extremely finely crafted on closer inspection. The series of facades blend delightfully into the streetscape and this is one of its key strengths. In contrast to the brash nature of Hirst’s art, Newport Street is an elegant, modest building constructed in the language of its sur-roundings. It feels as at home with the neighboring council housing as with the railway arches and remaining slivers of industrial architecture. As with all Caruso St John’s work, Newport Street is refreshingly free of any signature style, drawing its architectural integrity from the context at hand.
|ARCHITECT||Rod Heyes, Tim Collett|