Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art; South London Gallery – review

There’s something in the air, or the water. Two contemporary art galleries on the same long south London road are opening new spaces this month. Both repurpose the legacy of Victorian civic benevolence. Both employ architects who relish the as-found: the chance qualities of craftsmanship and time, damage, weathering, the authority of things made for a specific use that persists even when they are applied to another.

One is the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, a new gallery attached to the art school that nurtured Young British Artists (as they once were). It will exhibit art from outside the school, so as to set up exchanges between students, teachers, the world of art and the general public. The £4.2m project occupies the functional rear of an 1895 public bath- and wash-house whose ornate front and former pool halls are already in use as studios; the structure’s sturdy walls once carried the weight of water in cast-iron tanks above.

It’s a zone of big pipes, intriguing laundry-handling machines and bricks both rough-surfaced and hygienically glazed. It is, externally, part of an unruly bunch of buildings in a part of London where the city’s usual patterns unravel: there are, gathered behind the lovely Wren-style former Deptford town hall, some 1940s concrete prefabs scheduled for removal, an emphatic glass studio block by the late Will Alsop, backs of terraces, in the middle distance a tower block reclad in pastel shades.

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Out of its three storeys, one of them a basement, 700 square metres of exhibition space are made, plus a cafe and some offices. The job has been done by Assemble, the young architectural collective, winner of the 2015 Turner prize, whose work until now has often been temporary and built by their own hands. This is their most substantial project to date.

Goldsmiths’ exterior.

Goldsmiths’ exterior. Photograph: Assemble

Assemble amplify and augment the location’s bricolage. If there’s a ravaged wall to be left, or a worn stair tread, or some orphaned equipment, or a stump of steel joist, it is. The interiors of the water tanks become dark metallic display spaces, uninsulated, with only the 20mm thickness of the iron case between you and the outdoors. Views are borrowed, one into the airy hall of the former pool, and another into what, once the prefabs go, will be a new public open space.

Assemble then add something of themselves. Two pristine white-cube galleries are inserted on the top floor, with light coming from above through a delicate structure. Parts of the building are, in the way of their earlier projects, all their own work – some tiles in the cafe were cast only last week, in their workshop, and the light shades above are from the Granby workshop that Assemble helped set up in Liverpool. The height of the main water tank is increased by adding a timber structure, treated with a solution of vinegar and iron wool until it acquires an alchemical likeness to the dark metal. “I found the recipe on YouTube,” says Adam Willis, the Assemble member responsible.

The building announces itself with a generous portico formed by propping one of the white-cube galleries on slender legs; the gallery’s exterior is clad in a customised system of corrugated cement board, a material more often used on farm buildings, washed to the colour of verdigris. It forms part of loose assemblage of kindred volumes, such as the water tanks and boxy chimney, workaday but handsome.

The whole is a wandering experience revolving around a double-height internal court that can be used for both exhibitions and events. You pass through a rich range of surfaces and volumes, with light coming from different directions – above, sideways – and in different ways. The rooms are ambiguous, given an outdoors-indoors feel by their hard materials, and poised between construction, art and furniture. “People get confused,” as Assemble’s Paloma Strelitz says, “as to what’s old, what’s new, what’s art and what’s not.”

Two miles west, on the thoroughfare that changes from New Cross Road through a couple of other names to Peckham Road, the South London Gallery is opening an annexe across the road from its main premises. This occupies an 1867 fire station, later used as a sausage factory. It has been converted by 6a architects, who extended the gallery in 2010, and who can also claim to be godparents to Assemble, as 6a’s partner Tom Emerson was an influential teacher of the younger ones when they were still students. You can see a common sensibility. There’s a shared appreciation of the as-found – the brickwork is cleaned, but not so much as to lose its patina, and a fireplace is left hanging in the air, where a floor was removed to allow a hall for a new stair. Ornamental detail is skilfully restored by the contractors Lenguard. But 6a’s design is more direct than Assemble’s. They make one big and decisive move: the staircase, a refined version of a fire escape in white-painted steel, that unfolds upwards from the entrance towards the light. From here you reach a stack of cellular rooms, now used as galleries, an archive, education space, and studios for artists-in-residence that are gently modified versions of the original structure.

The thought given to detail is exceptional. The radius of the handrails and the way they turn corners, the coffering of the structure under the flights and landings, the transparency of the latticed risers, the use of precast concrete for the treads so as to blunt the noise of footsteps – all combine to create subtle rhythms of practical elements and harmonies of delicacy and strength. There’s a beautiful moment at the bottom, where the stair meets brick paving whose diagonal grooves were originally designed to give grip to the hooves of the horses that pulled the fire engines. The repeating lines of the thin white balusters stand lightly on the similarly repeating lines of the dark bricks, one echoing the other.

6a’s South London Gallery annexe, formerly a fire station and sausage factory.

‘You can just walk straight in and see the art’: 6a’s South London Gallery annexe, formerly a fire station and sausage factory. Photograph: Johan Dehlin/6a

The wish, says Stephanie Macdonald of 6a, was to make it “immediately apparent and accessible”, in order to serve the gallery’s successful programme of embedding itself in its neighbourhood. The existence of the mother gallery across the road relieves the annexe of the need for a reception space, shop or cafe and care has been taken to minimise the paraphernalia of announcement that you usually get in such places. You can just walk straight in and see the art. Big doors can, if desired, open up the front ground level gallery directly to the pavement.

Both works are objets trouvés. The South London Gallery’s addition started with a miraculous phone call to its director Margot Heller from an anonymous donor who owned the fire station and wanted to give it to the gallery. The Goldsmiths project began when Richard Noble, then head of its art department, saw the disused water tanks and thought they could help him realise his dream of opening a gallery. Their conception had the spirit of happenstance. In both projects, despite the highly deliberate and unspontaneous process of designing buildings, this spirit lives on.



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