words Justin McGuirk
images 6A Architects
The South London Gallery is one of a spate of recent London projects that sensitively convert existing buildings into intricate art spaces. Aside from Robbrecht en Daem’s Whitechapel Gallery, there is 6a’s own metamorphosis of a merchant’s house in Spitalfields into the Raven Row gallery. But whereas that project had what 6a’s Tom Emerson calls “history with a capital H”, this one is far more ordinary. This 19th-century developer fare is the stuff that London is made of. So its new incarnation is best described as uncanny. The arrangement of rooms and textures is familiar. The context is strange.
“It’s like a pencil drawing of a Victorian house where someone has rubbed out some of the details,” says Emerson. “You’re aware when an architrave is missing. You think, shouldn’t there be something there?”
Rather than an overarching concept, the building takes shape through a series of judgements. It is an accumulation of mundane but considered details. These register as little moments as you move from space to space. Upstairs in the house, the rooms still have fireplaces. The shoddy timber ceiling trusses are left exposed rather than politely covered over. You’re aware you’re standing in a bedroom and you can feel the history of it. Sometimes that history emerges despite the builders’ best efforts. An old Terry Smith piece where the artist scratched a window into the wall has been plastered over several times but keeps emerging as a shadow, a kind of ghost work. It’s pure serendipity.
At other times the memory of the domestic is prolonged artificially. Descending the staircase, you notice the curve of a wooden handrail. You grip and ungrip the door handles repeatedly because they feel good. They are not authentic to this place – in fact they are cast from a model manufactured in Budapest in the 1920s – but they are comforting enough for a house and suitably exotic for a gallery.
From bedroom-sized galleries you proceed through a domestic-scale corridor to a double-height extension – a sudden shift in scale whose surprise is enhanced by Paul Morrison’s gold-leaf mural. Then it’s down a winding garden path and another shift, to a barn-sized education space. This is new, but built on the site of an earlier building pulled down after suffering bomb damage in the Blitz. It is clad in the same grey-brown cement board panels as the house extension, and has a glass roof lantern similar to the one over the main gallery. The memory of the house is also preserved, in the timber ceiling trusses and the whitewashed timber wall-doors. Unlike the three hanging walls, these will not be repainted after each exhibition but will show a gradual wear and tear.
“Hopefully in the new elements there is a spirit of the place,” says Emerson.