Archi Battles 1 – O’Donnell+Tuomey / 6A

Introducing a new series on this blog, Archi-battles! a compare-and-contrast architectural tustle for which I will visit, experience and ultimately rate comparable architecture in London. First up, a bijou gallery refurb-and-extension contest, our prizefighters being the London Photographer’s Gallery by O’Donnell+Tuomey, and the Raven Row gallery by 6A.

London Photographers Gallery by o’D+T

Raven Row gallery by 6A

The buildings share some traits in that they are both essentially renovations of existing period structures with modern extensions added. Both exist in tight, bustling urban locations; the Photographer’s Gallery is located in Soho just off Oxford Street, and Raven Row is opposite Spitalfields Market near Shoreditch. Both are of a similar size and both provide support space to artists to a greater or lesser degree.

Okay, let’s begin;

1. External Appearance

Photographer’s gallery grafts it’s upper floors extension onto the original brick envelope by sporting great big black-rendered panels that stretch down over the old, with a new ground floor treatment of timber panels and blackened metal. The overall effect is graphically strong and easily identifiable, though perhaps a bit superficial and without much meaning. Raven Row is a far subtler affair, with the original 18th century shopfront of finely shaped joinery being re-instated and renovated, the upper facade being cleaned and sash windows replaced, repaired and made uniform. This approach is admirable for it’s discretion and attention to detail, but did make the gallery harder to find within a street of similar stock. Despite this, +1 for Raven Row.

2. Entrance/Lobby

Light display, front desk and café space in the Photographer’s Gallery

Straight into the exhibition spaces at the Raven Row gallery.

The Photographer’s Gallery seeks to be somewhat of a destination by providing café and bookshop spaces at ground level, meaning it is quite possible to spend a day there. Raven Row has a more transient approach, where visitors can come and go with minimal fuss. These attitudes are reflected in the front spaces, in that the Photographer’s Gallery has a defined front desk for greeting, information and booking as well as the aforementioned café and bookshop spaces, whereas on entering Raven Row one is met with a man in a chair and a trestle table, and the impression I got is that I should just find my own way through. While this approach is nice in theory for it’s familiar, local feel, I think the +1 must go to the Photographer’s Gallery here as I like the opportunity to sit and discuss the work at the end of my visit.

3. Circulation

Staircase and Lift in the Photographer’s Gallery

Main and rear staircases in Raven Row.

Circulation in both spaces is less than ideal, for different reasons. In the Photographer’s, the small footprint forces the use of the encased fire stair as the main, resulting in odd interior windows such as the one pictured above in order to bring in some light. In contrast the lift works very well, opening into the exhibition spaces in a much more fluid way. In Raven Row, the architectural approach which is all about uncovering and curating the palimpsestic history of the building forces the use of the existing domestic staircase, which though very fine, skews the circulation of the spaces, the upper floors becoming separated from the larger ground floor and rear extension galleries. +1 to Photographer’s.

4. Gallery environment

Spaces in the Photographer’s Gallery

Spaces in Raven Row.

In terms of environment for art, the two galleries provide quite similar spaces. Both rely on white walls, strip lighting and pale floors to create a blank backdrop for the work. Both sets of spaces are orthogonal plan and single-height. As both galleries are extensions of existing buildings they are both limited to the original window types, and though supplemented by the new insertions (large north and east facing picture windows in Photographer’s, large deep-reveal roof lights and south facing picture window at Raven Row) neither are perfect. Draw.

5. Space Syntax

While I find 6A’s approach to Raven Row as a gentle re-assembly of a building rich in peculiar history wonderful, I feel their reluctance to re-arrange the interior spaces of the gallery has resulted in a disjointed experience, with many rooms becoming cul-de-sacs and some rooms poorly proportioned. Photographer’s Gallery takes a more bracing approach to the interior architecture, marshalling each floor into open plan, flexible spaces linked together by a coherent and direct circulation core. Potentially this percieved problem could be overcome by good curation but architecturally it is less successful. + Photographer’s.

6. Support Spaces

Not much to say here, but for that the opaque residential layout of Raven Row better suits support space than the glazed fishbowl of the Photographer’s pictured above. +1 for Raven Row.

7. Detailing

Details from Photographer’s Gallery

Details from Raven Row.

Details of Photographer’s were fine but hardly thrilling, the stuff I liked the most was actually on the facade, which in a way can be seen as a summary of the building as a whole, i.e. graphic, photogenic, a little shallow, but capable of some good moments. Detailing of Raven Row is another level entirely. Everything has been considered and thought about, again the result of an overall approach, this time historical, imaginative and thoughtful. In fact, I adore the approach to detailing this building and fully reccommend a lecture about it here. +1 for Raven Row.

Verdict:

Completely unintended, but it’s a draw. Raven Row is a piece of art itself, the product of tenatious research, careful refurbishment and a poetic approach. Conversely, Photographer’s is a place for the masses to view art – robust, organisationally lucid, aesthetically distinct. Myself, I appreciate the detailing and poetic approach of the former, but the lucidity and facilities of the latter. That’s all, folks!

K.

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