Nouveau niche

Guilt, industry, brutality, art – the reinvigorated Whitechapel Art Gallery in London’s East End.

The English middle classes have always loved the idea of throwing high culture at the masses. From the mid 19th century onwards, all kinds of energetic social reformers and philanthropists have made earnest attempts to prise theatre, opera, ballet, art, museum collections and intellectual discourse out of their elitist strongholds and set them up in working-class premises. In London, none has succeeded better than the Whitechapel Art Gallery at the heart of the East End. Now it has just reopened after an £13.5m expansion. As tendrils of gentrification coil through the area, is its mission still relevant?

I just love its motto: “Life without industry is guilt, Industry without Art is brutality”. Guilt, industry, brutality, art: that’s most of the late Victorian preoccupations present and correct. And today, insists the gallery’s director Iwona Blaswick, this is still a poor area, one where successive waves of immigrants ship out, the moment they scrape together any money, to make way for the next wave. And it must be cheap, because huge numbers of artists inhabit the area. This is the scuzzy East End. Not the trendified White Cube/Hoxton variant of the East End.

More good news: this is not one of those “iconic” bits of funny-shaped new architecture. Partly because the gallery, first opened in 1901, is a little bit iconic already, what with its very bold, big-arched, twin-turreted Art Nouveau terracotta facade by Charles Harrison Townsend. Townsend was the architect of choice for these fin-de-siecle London cultural outreach projects: he also gave us the Bishopsgate Institute and the Horniman ethnographic museum on South London, all with the same organic, flowing feel. So respect was due. Besides, there was no space for a new extension. And anyway, the new architects are Belgians.

Landlocked as it is, right on the dirty, busy Whitechapel High Street at the foot of Brick Lane and hemmed in by buildings all round, the Whitechapel has never had enough, or the right kind of, space. Nor has it had an architectural rethink since its last quart-into-a-pint-pot extension in the late 1980s – masterminded by a former director, one Nicholas Serota. Having done that, he was able to step straight into his current job as head of the Tate empire.

This tells you something about the national and international regard for the place. After all, it was the only gallery in Britain to display Picasso’s Guernica, in 1939: prophetic, given the hammering that the East End was about to receive. It housed the first big UK exhibition of Jackson Pollock, the first solo shows of David Hockney, Gilbert & George, Richard Long, Peter Doig. It was always intended to have national clout, and this goes back to its foundation by the unstoppable do-gooder Dame Henrietta Barnett and her philanthropic chum J Passmore Edwards, who stumped up most of the cash. The two fell out, however, when Dame Henrietta denied Edwards naming rights. He had already paid for the new library next door, and had his name built into its façade. Edwards duly went off in a sulk, and refused to pay for a cinema-screen-size mosaic frieze (Art attended by Labour, etc) designed for the gallery’s frontage by Walter Crane. The panel is blank to this day, though it will, I’m told, shortly be taken over by artists in a Fourth Plinth kind of way.

But Edwards has had his revenge. In 2003 the Passmore Edwards Library closed. The present Whitechapel director, Iwona Blazwick, decided to knock through. And so – with several new gallery spaces, a large rooftop education room, and a small mirrored street-level restaurant now built in the former library, the freshly-scrubbed name of Passmore Edwards finally finds itself emblazoned on the Whitechapel Gallery.

The Belgian architects in question are Robbrecht en Daem – chosen in a competition largely because they had most experience of working directly with artists, says Blazwick. With artists Rachel Whiteread and Cornelia Parker on the selection panel, this was never going to be the kind of commission where the architecture overshadowed the art. It’s a conversion job, though a remarkably tricky one. There is no elbow room here at all. The two buildings were far from compatible. Yet some things about them were fine. Such as the fact that there are no daunting steps to mount to get in. Unusually for its time, the Whitechapel was designed so you can walk straight in at pavement level. Long before accessibility legislation, this was a deliberate statement of openness.

Robbrecht en Daem collaborated with one of the better young London firms, Witherford Watson Mann, with a third firm, Project Orange, doing the restaurant interior. It all hangs together nicely. It’s kind of tough on architect John Miller, who designed the Serota-era extension, because all his work at the entrance – and much else inside – has been swept away. 20 years isn’t long enough to give new architecture value, particularly in interiors. But by being ruthless with the work of the old regime, Blaswick and her architects have made the two buildings cohere internally. Plenty of clues remain to their separate but linked origins – like the massive cast-iron columns in the old library part, or the restored staircase there – but even a simple thing like having the same doors throughout, with chunky hardwood frames and handles, helps a lot.

When you enter the gallery now, it feels a lot less claustrophobic, with views off to the side as well as straight ahead. And you will be able to go there much more, because for the first time it will not have to close between the four annual temporary exhibitions. The library section is intended to be more reflective, with longer-running displays drawn from the gallery’s archive and from various public and private collections. There’s a fine little opening show of early purchases by the British Council. Freud, Hockney, Ofili, Riley, Doig – all bought for the nation for loose change.

So, the place still works as originally intended – a cultured escape from the brutality and guilt of the East End. And what do you know, Picasso’s Guernica is back. Well, the tapestry version from the United Nations, as part of a new installation which is just a bit anti-war. Looks like the Whitechapel Gallery has kept its progressive spirit.

Text and external image © Hugh Pearman. Interior photos courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery. Fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on March 29, 2009, as “Pillar of the community”


The Whitechapel Gallery:
Robbrecht en Daem architects:
Witherford Watson Mann architects: