White Cube Bermondsey

CMK architect's Marianne Mueller and Olaf Kneer discuss their process and project for Europe's largest private contemporary art gallery.

Jay Jopling's new White Cube arises in Bermondsey. Inaugurated in October 2011 for the Frieze Art Fair, the gallery is immediately striking for its certain seemingly contrastive aspects: a building all in all modest, with unexpected dimensions both in the interior and the exterior (it has already been celebrated as the largest private gallery in Europe), the sophisticated sequence of spaces where everything seems to halt as in absence of gravity leaving art to speak by itself. Not less important is the choice of the site in Bermondsey. The venue had been planned to be a warehouse for the other two White Cube galleries, but soon the opportunity and potential of the space became clear — just at the centre of a great lively borough, already strongly gentrified, and at close hand of the South bank of the Thames. The change was quickly decided and just in April, six months from the opening, the Southwark Council approved the regeneration project where in 2008 it had rejected a seven-storey residential project on the same site.

The new White Cube Bermondsey is an event: it stands out for its importance within the world art market; it stands out within the urban and district transformation process — with a programme which goes far beyond a commercial gallery can encompass: there're a bookshop, an auditorium, an archive. It stands out (also) for being an architectural work of singular beauty, designed by the Casper Mueller Kneer Architects based in Berlin and London. Domus met Marianne Mueller and Olaf Kneer, in their glass studio space at the heart of the Barbican, to get to know more closely their work.
Top: Entrance to the White Cube Bermondsey. Above: the gallery's corridor spans almost 70 metres. Photos courtesy White Cube Bermondsey
Top: Entrance to the White Cube Bermondsey. Above: the gallery's corridor spans almost 70 metres. Photos courtesy White Cube Bermondsey
Casper Mueller Kneer We found it interesting to deal with such a large building: a kind of warehouse from the seventies, measuring 75 by 75 metres, a roughly square footprint of unusual scale in that particular urban context. There was a big wall surrounding the perimeter of the site while the building was set back, at the rear of a yard.

Large, certainly, in comparison with other private galleries, the new White Cube is also large in relation to the street and to the borough's scale: it's a sort of spatial pause which breaks the pattern of the tight urban pace within a dense and tiny urban fabric with residential areas, shops and small restaurants. The old perimeter's small brick wall is replaced in the design project with a partially transparent edge: a fence of 151 steel fins, placed vertically on a base large enough to become a seat on the inside. The fins close and open to ever changing sights, along the angle and the point of view. As you look from an oblique angle, the fins resemble a wall, as you come closer the fence opens up till almost disappearing.
Skylights allow for natural light to bathe the space. Photo courtesy White Cube Bermondsey
Skylights allow for natural light to bathe the space. Photo courtesy White Cube Bermondsey
CMK The project of the fence was negotiated with Southwark Council and the Conservation Department. The street edges were considered untouchable; Bermondsey Street is a historical medieval street, narrow and confined and they wanted to keep that sense. Everybody agreed that the existing brick wall was ugly but yet is was marking the street's historic limits. We transformed the wall a fence: it opens up, it hides and reveals, one can sit on it. Then there's a new entrance at the corner which changes the axis of the site.

The yard is paved in light grey granite, opportunely designed to sustain weight and manoeuvres of loading and unloading. Actually, that waiting space makes one think — even before entering — of installations and open-air exhibitions, and in that empty breath, which defines the entrance to the gallery, a large white modern canopy stands out, cantilevering 6,5 metres without any columns, dignifying the industrial look with just one gesture. A single architectural sign — strictly speaking — visible from the outside, the canopy introduces the strategies of volumes, of spaces and of fragments of space, which lie ahead at the inside.
It is in through the revealing and concealing, within the fading out that the architects see the true emotion of the design project. Architecture is entrusted to art
The 9 x 9 x 9 metre room features movable walls. Photo courtesy White Cube Bermondsey
The 9 x 9 x 9 metre room features movable walls. Photo courtesy White Cube Bermondsey
The gallery is totally independent from the existing building — both structurally and functionally; it's like a shell in a shell. The character remains industrial but everything is transformed on the inside. The new spaces were inserted almost as freestanding structures: floors, walls, and ceilings are all autonomous to respond to the necessary requirements in terms of loading for example, as it happens in a museum. Several volumes compose the gallery and they are all within the pre-existent shell, except for the cubic gallery, the so called 9 x 9 x 9, which penetrates the roof surfaces.

CMK Scale is what drove the project. Space and light were the two most important elements we discovered within the existing building. Large areas without columns and a roof with a regular pattern of roof lights allowed us to use natural daylight, a rare condition for an art gallery. A key idea was to maintain long views across the building internally, views of nearly 70 meters. The idea of the large corridor, of a path or passage - 5.5 meters wide - has been absolutely important for the project.

The three main exhibition areas are arranged on the two sides of this corridor, each one with its own character. Art can be displayed in different conditions. The galleries have different scale, aesthetics, proportion and lighting. The North Gallery is more experimental in character, it has fluorescent lights and can be subdivided into relatively small cabinets. The 9x9x9 is naturally top-lit and has cubic proportions. The South Gallery is large, wide and open. Perhaps the truly important aspect of the project is the play of volumes and how they work with each other in a sequence.
Anselm Kiefer,<em>The Mystery of the Cathedrals</em>, installation view. Photo courtesy White Cube Bermondsey
Anselm Kiefer,The Mystery of the Cathedrals, installation view. Photo courtesy White Cube Bermondsey
Architecture is entrusted to art. The possibilities of transformation involve paths, partitions and network of entrances, whereas the space of the central axis is kept constant. The architectural configuration is entrusted to curatorial strategies and to the necessities of the exhibition, that is to the curators' approach. It's not just a question of distribution, but rather it's substantial sense of the space: a space which coincides with the event, and which transforms itself with the different scenario and the different designed situation.

The central axis is like a street, a street on which spaces and volumes overlook each other and different types of aggregation are possible, like urban scenarios. The experience of walking along the corridor space, is like a city, an abstract city. Within the dynamic relationship between path, street and spaces – the rooms - to whom one has access, one realizes the ideal interaction between visitor and gallery space, becoming spectator and main character at the same time. The corridor space is an abstract space, a potentially infinite axis, without beginning nor end, which allows us to penetrate into a space-other, almost metaphysical but also real and concrete, characterized by industrial materials: the ceiling is a steel mesh and the floor is concrete. A space which one doesn't simply cross through but rather experiences. The atmosphere is almost magical, it's an atmosphere one needs to become part of. This world of art, particularly here in London, places itself side by side people's everyday lives. The entrance void acquires the role of a cathartic space: it makes us forget the real world, it frees us from the city, the noises, the views, the urban relations, and then introduces us into the interior space which actually is like an exterior space, though an exterior of another world.
Gilber & George, <em>London Pictures</em>, installation view. Photo courtesy White Cube Bermondsey
Gilber & George, London Pictures, installation view. Photo courtesy White Cube Bermondsey
White Cube is a complex commission, to say the least. It is thanks to the intuition of Jay Jopling, its founder, that we know artists like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Chapmans or Antony Gormley. We asked Casper Mueller Kneer if and how much the relationship with the client of calibre influenced the design project.

CMK If there is a theme that characterises the many discussions, it was the invisibility of things. How do you make a space so abstract and so invisible so that it "dissolves"? It requires an extraordinary discipline to make this invisibility possible. The relationship between the external building envelope and its internal spaces is also influced by this strategy: it is intentional that once inside there's no memory of the building you left on the outside. It's a complete disconnection.

Yet there's a strong materiality to counterpoint the immateriality of the space; there's the concreteness and tangibility in many elements. Observing closely, passing through the rooms, one discovers details and differences, shifted elements, variations, staggered joints and rotations which make the space more real and bring us to a materiality which add depth, contrasting with the bi-dimensional abstractness; and we comprehend that the goal of the designers was that hidden and subtle complexity of the whole, rather than a minimalist or unreal pureness.
At CMK's studio. Photo by Emilia De Vivo
At CMK's studio. Photo by Emilia De Vivo
CMK We wanted to maintain the industrial character of the building. We wanted to assure a balance in the design between abstractness, fading-out and tactility. For these reasons we used materials strictly untreated – and although the palette is incredibly limited - all the materials are as they are. The steel ceiling is raw steel, just as it comes from the steel mill. The idea was that everything would remain as pure and un-laboured as possible. The concrete floor is literally a concrete floor. There are no additives in it, there's no colour in it. The introduction of a "tactile" material, contrasting everything "white" was important, that lure to a strong materiality.

Eventually the design then reveals itself to be much more than expected, more of what it seemed to manifest at the entrance where everything seemed visible and already disclosed, and which seemed similar to other spaces — the other White Cube or other contemporary places with whom it yet shares language and use of materials. It is more because this design project has the power to catch us and bring us back to distant and magical spaces which interweave relations with the imaginary of the city and the visions of the city in art — as those by De Chirico or, in the cinema, those of the Eur by Felllini — and which show an unreal city, which then becomes real, because it represents its primordial idea.

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