The architecture of art
Why the “white cube” formula has become universal for branded galleries
By Georgina Adam. Art Market, Issue 247, June 2013
Published online: 19 June 2013
Hardly a week goes by without news of another contemporary art gallery setting up in the capital, expanding its premises or moving to a new site. Most recently, Gagosian has confirmed that it is opening a 13th gallery just off Berkeley Square, and Sadie Coles has found a new space on Kingly Street. Victoria Miro has bagged premises just behind Sotheby’s on St George Street, and the auction house itself has taken over a building on the same road to make a private selling space.
These come after last year’s rush of New York dealers to set up London outlets: David Zwirner, Pace, Michael Werner and Per Skarstedt. But a Martian visiting them would probably be struck by how uniform the design of the different spaces is. They all share the same “white cube” aesthetic: starkly white, featuring either wood or concrete floors, with minimal distraction from the hardware (door knobs, radiators and so on). Lighting is often recessed, with everything done to ensure a clutter-free and stylish setting for the art on view.
Unlike luxury goods stores, which are carefully shop-fitted by interior designers, today’s top art galleries are almost always designed by architects. “This is one of the few areas where architects get to do interiors,” says Edwin Heathcote, the architectural critic for the Financial Times. “They achieve a kind of hardness, a global purity, by stripping out detail, which is particularly suitable for contemporary art.”
The list of architects who are sought after by art dealers is short, and many have worked on multiple gallery and museum projects. Gagosian’s new building will be designed by the high-profile firm Caruso St John, which has already fitted out six of the gallery’s bases. Caruso also designed Blain Southern’s huge new gallery in Hanover Square.
David Kohn, formerly with Caruso, is tipped to redo Sotheby’s recently acquired building, and last year successfully refurbished Thomas Dane’s second space, beside Christie’s, on Duke Street. Another talented architect, Thomas Croft, has a string of commissions to his name, among them Ordovas, Eykyn Maclean, Per Skarstedt and Timothy Taylor.
The renowned architect David Chipperfield, who is designing the collector Eugenio Lopez’s museum in Mexico City (due to open in November), renovated Pace’s new gallery in the Royal Academy of Arts’ Burlington Gardens site. Equally feted is Annabelle Selldorf, the favourite of David Zwirner on both sides of the Atlantic, who was also responsible for Hauser & Wirth’s Savile Row behemoth.
To the untrained eye, however, these galleries look very much the same. Heathcote sees this as displaying profound conservatism among art dealers. “While I do see subtle differences, it is true that the spaces are very similar,” he says. “I think this reflects the fact that international art is global, as are the big brand names. The gallery owner wants to be able to display art in the same setting, because the art could look very different if put in a different context. And the ‘white cube’ [aesthetic] is also good for younger artists; it puts them on the same flattering foot as established ones,” he says. Back in 1976, Brian O’Doherty, in his book Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space, said that the ideal space “subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art’.”
Heathcote also picks out, as an example of dealers’ fear of stepping outside the norm, the almost universal re-use of existing buildings for galleries. “There are virtually no examples of new-builds for galleries, whereas dealers could do something quite radical,” he says. The exception is Zwirner’s new 20th Street gallery in New York; a building by Selldorf now occupies the site of a former parking garage.
Heathcote says that light and space are the first things he looks for when visiting a gallery. Mayfair galleries tend to be in older buildings: in townhouses, such as Zwirner, or in former banks, like Hauser & Wirth’s Piccadilly premises. These older properties come with heritage constraints: any changes must be reversible, and getting permits can be gruelling. Another issue is the windows, which eat up precious wall space. Industrial buildings, particularly warehouses—such as Gagosian’s in King’s Cross—offer volume, height and top-lighting, and do not have windows.
David Rosen of Pilcher Hershman, an estate agent and fellow of the Royal British Institute of Architects, who has been marrying dealers with spaces in London for more than 20 years, says: “The essentials are volume, light, style and height. But the most important thing is that it should be what the artists want—not what the clients like.”
Will the ‘white cube’ look old-fashioned one day? It has been around for a good 40 years already. Heathcote thinks that change will not be initiated by dealers, but could come from a shift in the nature of the art that is sold, or changes in the way art is displayed in museums. If the London-New York axis were ever to lose its hegemony, there would also be an impact. “If the market flips to São Paulo or Beijing, with a different aesthetic, then gallery design might change,” he says, “but I don’t see that happening soon.”
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