A big black billboard set against the boozy pedestrian traffic of Shoreditch, David Adjaye’s gallery presents a very fine front for two arts organisations that have lacked presence on the city’s landscape.
The building is designed to house inIVA (the Institute of International Visual Arts) and Autograph ABP, both dealing with the art and photography of the cultural diaspora and the city’s cosmopolitan mix. And it is black. But it is a kind of slick, smooth black that lifts it from the historical industrial language of its context, a block of lava solidified in amongst the bricks.
David Adjaye made his name carving controversial, inventive, occasionally brilliant houses out of unpromising sites and budgets. He left a substantial and clever backlist before he hit 40 (along with a tasty list of offended neighbours and whingey bad press), almost unprecedented in this country’s middle-aged scene.
With this east London gallery Adjaye is beginning to pad out the second phase in his career, the bit you sense he’s been gearing up for, the public building portfolio. The whole thing is designed to mislead. It looks like the eight-storey behemoth he actually wanted to design – but shrunken down, like a toy office. It exerts a real presence on the scraggy streetscape – it is a genuinely surprising building without being as obviously in your face as his more notorious houses, where his response to a tough urban streetscape was always a bit melodramatic. Unlike the fearsome barrier walls Adjaye puts up around his houses, the street front has been removed entirely in a gaping plate glass frontage that, as the cliche goes, allows the street to flow into the gallery. Except it doesn’t. The view is there to entice – the actual entrance is down a tight alley, announced by a pivoting sign. It’s very London – like all the best clubs, down a dark alley.
The entrance and reception though, beautifully rendered in concrete, are more LA – slightly surprising, slightly too slick. A stripped down bar sits to one side, a complex canted concrete desk and stair assemblage to the other. The gallery, too, is as smooth as a baby’s bottom – classic white cubeness. One of the things I have always found most satisfying in Adjaye’s work (and which I think has often bugged others intensely) is his lack of interest in detailing. He is definitively not in the British tradition of obsessing over the finer points, the junctions, the engineering. He may have worked for Chipperfield at the beginning but he seems to have brought away an antipathy to perfection that I enjoy hugely. He is more interested in striking juxtaposition, in space, in the journey through the building. Whether with oriented strand board, ply or painted concrete, he uses cheap construction-site materials to real effect. At the Whitechapel Idea Store he revelled in the creation of a basic and robust piece of commercial architecture, drawing inspiration from the cheapest material possible, the green- and blue-striped tarpaulins of the traders’ stands. The interior is pure modern municipal – unfussy, flexible. It is not a slick commercial building but it is also not a heavy-handed or didactic gesture of overbearing generosity. It is background.
When he described Rivington Place, Adjaye talked of a theatre set, of false perspectives and playing with scale. But a set is a very different kind of background. It is one that exists within the suspension of disbelief. In many ways, this little gallery with its offices above is an extremely beautiful object. The saw-tooth roof recalls Amédée Ozenfant and the industrial obsessions of early modernism; the play of varying depths in the window-reveals juggles with the elevations; the building changes radically between day and night and varying daylight conditions allow it to be read as a solid cliff or a woven surface. The library is a generous, unpretentious space in which plywood bookshelves and desks jiggle in and out of openings and niches.
But in other ways there is much that is deceptive in this building. There is a consistent sense in the upper floors of the interiors being completely servile to the facade. The saw-tooth northlights turn out to be a purely sculptural profile; the sloping sections are punctured with basic Velux-type openings; and the offices are far less dramatic than the powerful exterior might lead you to expect.
On the other hand, this is a place for showing artwork and for the administration of its promotion – perhaps it is exactly as it should be. Adjaye is currently completing a series of buildings around a new expression of black culture – the Stephen Lawrence Centre and the Bernie Grant Theatre – and he has avoided overt didacticism about an architecture of negritude, instead allowing a sophisticated but rough London modernism to emerge. You feel that these are all experiments and that they may gel into a substantial body of work.
The Rivington Place gallery does not give us any real answers – it does not change the way we see art, it does not present a new alternative to the white cube or the found space, but it will probably be a good gallery. Adjaye knows art well enough to have made sure of that. It is a beautifully cut black suit that makes an average body look pretty good.
The key idea may be that this small building represents one of the motors of London’s art explosion – its racial and cultural mix – and functions as both billboard and shop window. Perhaps that is enough.