Adapt and Thrive

Rowan Moore looks at the role of gallery spaces in the 21st-century

If you’re looking to investigate the relationship between art and architecture, then London is as good a place to start as any. From the most private of places to large institutions, London is a leader. Significant new art spaces keep appearing in the city, and its architects are in demand for similar projects around the world. It has long been a centre of successful and exportable architectural skills, supported by an infrastructure of outstanding engineers and other essential consultancies. It is also a centre of both the making and trading of art, of artists, dealers, collectors and major museums like Tate. Architects and artists get to know each other. It can only help that London architects like David Chipperfield, David Adjaye and Caruso St John get the opportunity to develop their careers with the help of commissions to design studios, exhibition installations and galleries – for Antony Gormley, Chris Offili and Damien Hirst – and absorb the culture of the art world around them.

This year’s London output includes Thomas Heatherwick’s spectacular carving out of old grain silos to create Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, a museum based on Jochen Zeitz’s collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora, which opens in September. It also includes Jamie Fobert’s cool, calm and long- awaited extension to Tate St Ives, launching in mid-October. Amanda Levete Architects’ steel-and-porcelain surgery on the Victoria and Albert Museum, what she has described an ‘interweaving of history and modernity’, opened in June.


Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), Capetown, by Heatherwick Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), Capetown, by Heatherwick Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan 

Next year the Royal Academy will expand into 6 Burlington Gardens on its north side, a palace-sized build- ing originally built for the University of London, with the help of what Chipperfield calls ‘a series of subtle interventions which will add up to something very different... a small amount of architecture for a profound result.’ That atmospheric shrine to British modernism, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, is gaining an extension, also designed by Fobert. David Adjaye, who many moons ago began his career designing a practically budget-free gallery for dealer Stuart Shave, last year reinforced a by-now mighty reputation with the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. He is currently working on the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art.

The design of places for exhibition runs from the white cube to the icon. At one end of the spectrum contemplation of the art is all, and the design is all about tweaking light, proportion and material to show the work to best advantage. At the other end, the main purpose is to make a statement, to advertise a city, an institution, a donor or a commercial development with extravagant shape-making which, as it happens, also advertises the architect whose signature it is. Here gallery space tends to become conveniently malleable filler between the forms. The Guggenheim Bilbao, originator of the contemporary icon, is twenty years old this year, and the demise of the trend has long been predicted; but as the Zeitz shows, it seems as popular as ever. Between these poles there are multiple shades and many forms of adjustment and tuning – how large is the work on show expected to be, is it video, installation or on canvas? These in turn reflect the shifting cultures of collecting and exhibiting, and the changing values and power balances between public and private institutions and between art and architecture. The colossal prices in contemporary art mean that a very small number of works can be worth as much as an entire building.

At one end of the spectrum contemplation of the art is all, and the design is all about tweaking light, proportion and material to show the work to best advantage.

This is a time when a single artist, Damien Hirst, has the wealth and power singlehandedly to create a semi- public institution – the Newport Street Gallery, designed by Caruso St John – and when galleries like Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner can mount exhibitions at the level you would have previously only have expected from public spaces like the Whitechapel or Hayward galleries. Gagosian has also hired Caruso St John, to create spaces that are beyond museum quality, in expensive and challenging sites. Outside Britain corporate and private collectors like the Louis Vuitton Foundation and François Pinault create buildings and shows to rival the most famous museums in the world.

At the same time public institutions feel the perpetual need to expand audiences, to be more accessible and in some cases to stage the blockbuster exhibitions that are essential to their revenues. ‘All museums,’ says Chipperfield, ‘have an ambition to be more than just a place of showing things, but to be a place of activity.’ In the arms race of museums and galleries, it seems to be impossible ever to stand still. The reverberations are felt at every level. Kettle’s Yard, which grew around the artisans’ cottages acquired by the collector Jim Ede, has always been characterised by its small scale and intimacy – its challenge is to preserve these qualities even as it expands and upgrades its gallery spaces, and adds education facilities and a café. A major reason for the expansion of Tate St Ives, a project that has had to thread its way delicately through the complexities of local planning politics, is the shift from the more domestic-scaled works of mid-century British modernism to the larger pieces of today. The new addition, which doubles the size of the original building, provides a 500 square metre column-free exhibition space, which can be subdivided as required to meet the needs of contemporary art.


Lecture Theatre, RA250 Redevelopment, Royal Academy of Arts, London, by David Chipperfield Architects. Photo: Francis Ware

Lecture Theatre, RA250 Redevelopment, Royal Academy of Arts, London, by David Chipperfield Architects. Photo: Francis Ware


The V&A is motivated by the desire to create the best possible space to accommodate the huge crowds drawn by shows like ‘David Bowie is’ and ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’, with concert-like back-of-house and get-in. The task was therefore to smuggle something not entirely unlike a stadium onto a site already loaded with massive and precious Grade I listed museum buildings – the only place to go was underground – without interrupting the daily workings of the institution. The first blockbuster to occupy this new territory is a multi-media, immersive, genre-shattering exhibition called ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’, a subtitle that would suit most of these large-scale architectural extensions too.

As institutions grow larger, they come to resemble small cities, with neighbourhoods and byways structured around a hopefully comprehensible whole. They’re also concerned about how exactly they connect with the city districts immediately around them. Tate Modern, in both its original and its most recent phases, and the Great Court of the British Museum pioneered this tendency, creating internalised versions of town squares and, in the case of Tate, a ‘vertical boulevard’. Rather than a single grand portico, it offered multiple entrances and exits of roughly equal status. The new Blavatnik Building, which opened last year, fulfilled the dream of both Tate’s director Nicholas Serota and its architects Herzog and de Meuron, of opening up a north-south route through the museum. ‘People can walk straight through, without even looking at any art,’ said Serota upon its completion.

Art – the art world, the art market – doesn’t stand still. It is a dynamic, never-ending interplay of creation and ambition. 

The V&A calls its new development the ‘Exhibition Road Quarter’, as if it were indeed a neighbourhood of some colourful and louche European city. An essential part of Amanda Levete’s design is the opening up of its entrance courtyard to Exhibition Road, thereby helping to animate a thoroughfare which, despite its abundance of major cultural buildings, always seems begrudging towards public life. ‘The success of the scheme,’ says Levete, ‘is predicated on having a different relation to street, on creating a place that is a place for London – its success will be measured in how well it is used.’ Fundamental to Chipperfield’s plan for the Royal Academy is, as with Tate, a south-north route which, threading through the complex interiors of both Burlington House and 6 Burlington Gardens, will allow the public to get from one side of the block that they occupy to the other. It will make a link from Piccadilly to the grid of venerable and art-rich streets to the north – Savile Row, Cork Street, New Bond Street.


Descending staircase at the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, London by AL_A. Photo: © Hufton+Crow

Descending staircase at the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, London by AL_A. Photo: © Hufton+Crow

The projects in Cape Town and Latvia are as different in architectural style as their locations are in climate. Heatherwick carves a large internal hall out of the repeating tubes of the silos, to create an interior you could call intestinal or sci-fi or both. Adjaye proposes an exalted version of the modest timber structures, with steep-pitched roofs to throw o the snow, that you find in the Baltic states. But both these projects have one thing in common, which is that they are at the centre of large commercial developments – the V & A (Victoria and Alfred) Waterfront in Cape Town and New Hanza City in Latvia. They both therefore have to be more than just places for looking at art. They have to raise the profile of their locations and activate them, to help make a piece of city work.

Art – the art world, the art market – doesn’t stand still. It is a dynamic, never-ending interplay of creation and ambition. The same goes for the architecture of display and exhibition. It doesn’t conform to a single style, or attain a Platonic ideal of the perfect art space. It is shaped by the pressures and opportunities of nance, expansion, audiences, the wealth of the art market and the changing dynamic between collectors, dealers, artists and institutions. Those London architects who know the art world know this. Theirs is an entrepreneurial city, that demands adaptation to its changing nature, where you have to be uid and responsive to survive and prosper. There’s every reason to believe that the new spaces for art and the new forms of architecture that go with them will keep on coming.

Sir David Adjaye, Arno Brandlhuber, Sir David Chipperfield, Elizabeth Diller, Thomas Heatherwick and Amanda Levete are among the speakers at the second Frieze Academy Art & Architecture Conference in London on Friday 6 October. For more information and to book tickets, click here

Main image: Temporary shelter over RA250 Redevelopment, Royal Academy of Arts, London, by David Chipperfield Architects. Photo: Francis Ware

Rowan Moore is Architecture Critic of The Observer, based in London, UK

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