In Conversation with 6a Architects
The white box is a tried and tested template. But what about creating galleries and studios that artists actively respond to?
6a founder Tom Emerson explains why their spaces are about more than looking good on camera – in fact, it’s a question of what the camera can’t readily see. Interview by Andrew Hale.
The name 6a might be small, but it’s a studio of great influence. Founded by Tom Emerson and Stephanie Macdonald in 2001 after meeting at the Royal College of Art, not only have they become one of the leading architecture practices in the UK, they have garnered a reputation in the art world as the talent to work with, having realised the critically acclaimed extension to the South London Gallery (2010) as well as contemporary East London gallery Raven Row (2009). When Juergen Teller commissioned his new West London photography studio, it was 6a he called. You will see it cameo in his pictures, but it certainly won’t scream ‘I’m here’ in quite the way Instagram-friendly architecture does – because that’s not how they approach things. Here it’s about encouraging you to wander out of shot into the next frame. Still, the Mayfair flagship they created for Paul Smith in 2013 gets plenty of likes and uploads, with the store’s signature cast iron detailing even doubling back to inspire ‘No.9’, a line of leather goods by the British tailor echoing the building’s façade. Award-winning as Emerson and Macdonald are – they won the New London Architecture Award and a RIBA in 2011; the Eric Shelling Medal for Architecture in 2012; a Civic Trust Award in 2014; whilst their nominations are too numerous to mention – they’re not resting on any laurels. 6a are set to reconceptualise Cork Street Galleries next, launching the pedigree strip, an anchor point of the London art world, into a brave future.
Andrew Hale: 6a distinguishes itself because much of the work has been commissioned by people from the arts, particularly gallerists. I suppose the first question is, what is unique to that? What’s the challenge of working in this area?
Tom Emerson: That’s a really tricky question. The first two galleries we did were nearly simultaneous; Raven Row and the South London Gallery. During and after, I remember that artists – visitors too, but in particular artists – said that there’s a kind of atmosphere. Artists really wanted to show there. It was quite interesting because we couldn’t quite work out what it was. And nobody ever really told us what it was. There are a lot of platitudes around the white cube; for instance that the white cube is neutral. So there’s this world of galleries which are white cubes, look white, but are actually really cold. Because in their attempt to be neutral they end up being rather chilling and distant; places that serve a good technical purpose – light levels, clear rooms, and all the rest – but actually you don’t particularly want to be there. What’s interesting is that when we were doing the South London Gallery, the artist Fiona Banner spent several days doing these incredible typographic wall drawings – she spent an enormous amount of time compared to anybody else in the spaces. And at the end of it said, “I really like being here.” Although the spaces that we make are quite understated, I don’t think they are neutral. I think they’re actually very specific, they deal with their own histories, with their own location. They try to respond to some of the unseen – maybe a particular kind of social history, anecdotal history – of people and place. Particularly somewhere like Raven Row, where you have a kind of incredible tumbling of disaster and opulence; it’s almost like the story of the city passes through the building.
AH: Yes, it’s not being afraid to have a personality. Because by being neutral you can create a situation where it’s almost offensive. It’s like saying that we know better than you, it’s quite prescriptive in a way.
TE: I don’t think it’s possible to be neutral. I think you can be slightly passive-aggressive. To have something that knows what it is without necessarily shouting about it, then sets up a kind of situation which I think artists really respond to, and visitors as well. It is about remaining reasonably understated, I suppose the musical analogy would be knowing when not to play. Play the pauses, play the quiet bits.
AH: To know what to leave out as opposed to leave in…
TE: Exactly. And that’s something that developed in the gallery world, but then transferred into working with artists, and on studios, as well as occasionally houses for collectors.
AH: You work mainly with public galleries, but commercial galleries too. In terms of providing space for those two types of places, is your approach different?
TE: Slightly different, in the sense that in a private gallery essentially the director of the gallery is owner, curator, CEO – they direct as a kind of singular vision. They have a stable of artists, which actually has a form to it, has a kind of shape to it, and is very, very precise. What’s interesting about working with public galleries is you always get a sense that the director is on one level thinking about their mission, their programme, but also on behalf of a really big constituency. So they’re thinking about their education programme, they’re thinking about the kind of ‘day out’: the overall experience, the experience of the artists, many of whom might be quite experimental choices, and are often doing their first major show. There is a very big agenda; which means that you have to look after a thousand things, rather than one thing. And that makes them quite interesting, because you sometimes get quite explicit conflicts between, let’s say the sophistication expected of the art world, but maybe the accessibility expected of, say, working in Peckham, where the housing estate next door is just as an important audience as getting the Frieze crowd down, or other artists. So the audience is much more complex. Also the funding streams, because these things are fundraised, mean you have to be completely auditable; so you have to be very transparent with your decisions. The client does as well.
AH: Can we talk some more about audiences and the experience of buildings? I’m thinking about the role of public realm, that the experience around visiting a gallery is as important as the work inside it. At the same time of course you can buy a £1 million piece of art from a JPEG on the internet – you don’t necessarily have to go to the gallery any more. There is also the “starchitect” effect: is the building a great building, or does it look great on Instagram? Can you elaborate on those issues?
TE: I guess it’s all to do with the fact that everything – whether it’s artworks or works of architecture, or whatever – collapses into this one world of images; of really fast images, quickly produced and quickly consumed. And I think in architecture it’s certainly a problem, there has been that whole era of iconic architecture; of everybody wanting to be Bilbao, and then Bilbao appearing really unexceptional, and actually becoming another kind of bauble. Bilbao is great, because it kind of shook everything up, but once every single mid-size provincial town from Latvia to southern Spain wants one – and now even further – it becomes a kind of entertainment. That is not to say that all of them are bad, some of them are great buildings, but sometimes they are made more for Instagram than they are as pieces of architecture that will enrich the city. And I suppose the thing that’s interesting about doing galleries, which are public spaces – even when they’re private galleries, they’re still public space in the sense that people can just visit them; there’s a social side. It’s about also living our lives in the city, not on Instagram. There was a very nice moment at Raven Row – a Seth Siegelaub textiles show. He was this obscure, cultish, difficult pioneer of conceptual art, who had somehow turned his practice towards textiles. There was this amazing juxtaposition where you had really hardcore conceptual curators coming over from Germany with middle-aged ladies who get Weaving Monthly. And all of us, including the director, felt this was a spectacular moment of encounter, where these completely different worlds are converging on the same thing for completely different reasons – some quite difficult, quite complex, conceptual reasons, others because they’re really pretty things, they’re nice to look at and experience. So this show actually had this fantastic public dimension.
AH: Like you said about Fiona Banner, “This is a nice place to be.” At the end of the day,
that experience of looking at a piece of art, of being in front of a piece of art, or physically standing in a building – whatever it is, the light or the proportions – you can’t experience that without physically being there.
TE: No, you can’t. And then sharing that with someone else, or a lot of other people; there are all of the events which go alongside the artistic programme – talks, films, parties and stuff like that. Which means that there’s a certain kind of social life, and in a sense that’s what makes the city an interesting place to be. That’s why we don’t all live remotely.
AH: The remote idea appeals but it never quite works, does it?
TE: Yeah, it never works. We need each other’s company and we need a good reason to be together, and galleries are one of the fantastic ones. Your point about buying the £1M painting from a JPEG – you wonder what the motivation is. Is it the artwork and what it means, or is it the artwork and what it’s worth? But maybe there’s nothing very new about that. I mean I suspect that the Medici was being pretty cunning when picking… Michelangelo was probably a good investment!
AH: You recently completed a studio for the photographer Juergen Teller. I read an article by Jonathan Glancey about it and he commented that: “It’s strange that a photograph cannot do justice to this building.” But then Juergen loves using every inch of it to take photographs.
TE: Well it’s funny because most of our work, compared with other architects, is very difficult to photograph. We don’t design it to be one view; it’s more like an experience of sequences. Whenever you set up a camera you always have the sense that okay, that composition is quite nice, but actually the really interesting bit is around the corner. You move the camera to see it, and you’ve just lost the bit that you’d just framed in the first place. It can be really frustrating sometimes for us. I mean there’s a whole world of architects, probably who are maybe less well known than they should be, because they don’t necessarily make great images, though their work is great: the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza for instance. Nobody’s ever taken a good picture of Álvaro Siza’s work, although he’s generally regarded amongst architects as probably the greatest living architect. So you either have to trust the people telling you, or go and see the thing for yourself. You cannot Google him and think, ‘Oh yeah, he’s the guy.’ And there are a few like that – a few Japanese architects. Particularly the older ones whose careers were made before the image was so omnipresent in culture. And I think that maybe they’re the people who influenced us the most. But it is difficult when somebody says, ‘Send us one picture.’ And we say, ‘Yeah, well we can but it doesn’t mean anything. You need at least six.’ I think one of the reasons Juergen likes working in the studio is that it doesn’t collapse down to one picture – he can continually make almost an infinite number of pictures, and they’re always different. I don’t think we ever talked about it in those terms, but that might have been in the evolution of the project.
AH: Let’s talk about Mayfair and the work you did for the Paul Smith store on Albemarle Street. I loved the contrast of the traditional, but at the same time unexpected. How did you arrive at that?
TE: We got a call from one of the designers in Paul Smith’s studio, who said, ‘We’re doing another store, this one’s a really special one’. It wanted to feel different from his others. It’s a big store, a flagship store, but somehow architecturally it’s a mixed bag of characters; there are two buildings, one of which is a 1960s, grid-block – it’s actually really quite elegant – and then a 1980s, neo-Georgian building which was a copy of a really fine building further down the street, but built as a spec office. And Paul disliked that building, and wanted a new façade on it. We had a think about it, and we asked ourselves what does Paul Smith stand for? Or how could you get a bit of Paul Smith in the street or in architecture? We just went back to the thought that, okay, Paul Smith comes from tailoring – quite trad craftsmanship – but then always switches something; usually in the detail: a lining, or a button, or a slight adjustment to a cuff. Quite subtle and quite sharp. So what’s the architectural equivalent to that? We thought maybe it’s cast iron. Cast iron is everywhere in London; it’s the details of London. From drain-covers to decorative balconies, street lamps, clocks, stations. It does everything from the technical to the decorative, but always in the background. If you go to somewhere like Bedford Square, they’re more or less all the same buildings, except the balconies; and then each one has a slightly different flutter, which gives a kind of personality to the city, without ever being particularly expressive or assertive. The cast iron in London is also extremely elegant, around the parks and things like railings: the equipment of the city. So we went back to him and said, ‘We think that you are to fashion, and to clothes, what cast iron is to the city.’ And he just went, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’It was really a process of experimenting with patterns and forms of fabrication. And Paul was completely engaged in the whole thing, every single meeting was with him; he was totally switched on about architecture as well as about everything else. We talked about Lina Bo Bardi, who’s one of our favourite, fairly obscure, architects from Brazil – and he was completely on it. So it was really easy to connect with him. The pattern we used is one that exists all over London; it’s essentially a regency pattern that we stripped of some of its historical clues, and then introduced slight interlocking circles. For the windows, which were existing openings, we used curved glass Belgian windows – a little bit like the Princes Arcade down the road. Essentially re-constituting elements of the London street, but in a new kind of way.
AH: Can we talk about Cork Street, and the new galleries being created there. You have carried out an exercise in looking at the nature of the gallery space.
TE: Essentially the starting point was to try to think about the planning requirements – there are two large redevelopments, offices and residential, centred around the new galleries; with a view to return Cork Street to its major role in the artistic, creative life of the city. Cork Street previously had a group of small, independent galleries, which may be a kind of mirror or contrast with the institutional weight of its neighbour the Royal Academy. But I think that in the prescription, essentially having ten galleries along there, as a planning requirement, is sort of saying we would like Cork Street to be the way it was. Cork Street has a fantastic pedigree, particularly from the 50s to the 80s when it was really bringing a continental Modernist influence to a British audience for the first time. I think that we wouldn’t know Giacometti the way we know him without Cork Street. So on one level there’s the aspiration of giving Cork Street more than just a commercial pulse – to give it some sort of cultural value as well. But you can’t redo the old Cork Street; the art world, the art market, have grown and developed so much since then that model is not so relevant. We wanted to understand the current or future character of the gallery – and in this case in particular, the commercial gallery. We spoke earlier about the nuances between public and commercial galleries but in recent years I would say the distinction between the public and commercial is much more blurred than it ever was. So if you are in the East End you may well visit Herald St and the Chisenhale on the same afternoon. The chances are they know each other’s programme completely intimately, and it somehow makes sense – instead of the way that the public institution and the commercial gallery used to be very different animals. So what we tried to do – having worked both in public and commercial galleries – was give a kind of proposal between them, relevant for today. The main thing that we identified was that commercial galleries now aren’t necessarily the repetition of one type, similar-sized galleries on a streetscape; they tend to be divided between very small and very large. The big international galleries, have headquarters and satellites – the satellites tend to be very small, and the headquarters are huge, sometimes almost museum size.
AH: Yes, you feel that they are addressing different sets of criteria.
TE: We looked at the type of buildings and the quality of spaces – some existing, some new – with a view to see if there is a way of finding both the small and the very large and to give more of a varied rhythm to the street. So the way that Gagosian for instance, or Sadie Coles on Kingly Street, can put on really big shows, big group shows as well as big monographic shows. Then also you get the little sample show, where you might get one or two works in a space – and these are very special, quite episodic, perhaps relating to a bigger space somewhere else, or perhaps standalone. So for Cork Street that can be a very interesting process, because whilst some of the spaces are quite straightforward – standard proportions, heights – they always end up crashing into a bit of existing London, and then you get an eccentric space; there’s a change in floor level, there’s a basement that doesn’t align with the street. And those are all the kinds of moments where you can do something special; where somehow the character of London can meet the character of the gallery.
AH: Cork Street is also unique in having a range of adjoining space specially designated as galleries. Gallerists like to know who their neighbours are. But at the same time there are really great examples – I mean certainly the East End gallery explosion in the early 2000s had that sort of confluence of a number of galleries near each other – Vyner Street is a good example. And if you’re talking internationally, something like the Jewish Girls’ School in Berlin – a group of really interesting galleries, somewhere great to eat. It’s this confluence of great art spaces and blurring of the public and the private again.
TE: And it also spreads – I mean there are already great galleries on Old Burlington Street, and dotted around Mayfair. So it’s almost the missing element in something which was quite live anyway – you’re within five minutes walk of a number of great galleries and institutions, and Cork Street finds a new way of doing what it has done for a very long time: of being a commercial, cultural centre to the art world. There’s always the desire people have to spend time together, to be in the city, to experience art in relation to other experiences – whether eating together, or just walking around. As an architect the thing I get most excited by is the social behaviour of the city. The reason why doing these spaces – galleries, museums – is so exciting, is that you’re actually participating in the public life of the city; and hopefully making it better, more progressive, more inclusive, more exciting, more experimental. That’s something which I think the city as a kind of organism can still do, in a way in which maybe politics, let’s say – given that we’re talking the day after Article 50 – seems to be kind of failing at the moment. That’s not necessarily the world in which progress is most keenly felt. But I think the architecture and the behaviour of the city is still really lively. Especially in London.