Private Museums of the World: Saatchi Gallery

Architecture skilfully recedes to let art take centrestage
London-based architecture firm, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, takes a classical Georgian heritage building and transforms it into the venue for Saatchi Gallery.

by Nadezna SiganporiaPublished on : Apr 08, 2021

It’s a Georgian classical building; a listed one at that. It was designed to impress and command attention. The structure is the very antithesis of the brief given to London-based architectural firm, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. The new venue for the Saatchi Gallery, a private museum for contemporary art by Charles Saatchi, had to be minimal. The art was always meant to be the hero; the architectural details playing an important supporting role with elegant white spaces, a clear geometry and visual connectivity.

“Charles Saatchi, as a collector, was very clear that he buys art from artists in their galleries… (which) are not conditioned spaces. He has avoided the international, what some might term ‘racket’, of establishing absolutely fixed and idealised conditions of the display of art. His is a contemporary art collection and we were basically putting the art into a well-tempered environment,” explains Simon Allford, architect, co-founder and director of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris.

Simon Allford, architect, co-founder and director of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris | Saatchi Gallery by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris | STIRworld
Simon Allford, architect, co-founder and director of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris Image: Tom Mesquitta, Courtesy of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Located within the listed Duke of York’s HQ building in Chelsea, the architects carved out 67,000 square-feet of gallery spaces within the heritage structure. They brought in a thread of restraint in the architecture in the large, double-height spaces, the intimate rooms and the new, simple circulation system. “We were very interested in the idea that the gallery itself was the public place and all the moving patterns are through the gallery. That made it quite distinct…it was both the challenge and the generator of the gallery’s unique arrangement,” he adds.

Architectural detail plays an important supporting role with elegant white spaces, a clear geometry and visual connectivity | Saatchi Gallery by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris | STIRworld
Architectural detail plays an important supporting role with elegant white spaces, a clear geometry and visual connectivity Image: Tim Soar, Courtesy of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

The transformation

“The big design challenge was to maximise the volume and light and weave that into a listed building that had good structure, good organisation, a simple central staircase route and existing plans for a rear extension,” says Allford. The architects created five galleries on each of the three floors that are arranged around the refurbished staircase. These interconnecting galleries have high ceilings of over four metres with floor-to-ceiling openings created between them to afford the visitor different views through the length of the building – one particular view on the first floor stretches almost 200 feet.

Simple finishes and exposed trusses on the second-floor space reference the history of Saatchi Gallery | STIRworld
Simple finishes and exposed trusses on the second-floor space reference the history of Saatchi Gallery Image: Tim Soar, Courtesy of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

“Saatchi had originally made its name at their Boundary Road location. We referenced the history of the gallery on the second floor with the warehouse-style space,” he continues. Here the gallery expands into the full height of the original roof space. Simple finishes and exposed trusses lend an industrial vibe to the space; a memory of their past. “In the basement we created a new location for Richard Wilson’s famous 20:50 as a reflective room; it is very much about the history of the gallery, weaving into the history of the building”. Attached to the rear of the original building, is the new extension displaying a brick façade and slate roof.

A neutral material palette was purposefully chosen to lend the space a minimal vibe | Saatchi Gallery by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris | STIRworld
A neutral material palette was purposefully chosen to lend the space a minimal vibe Image: Tim Soar, Courtesy of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

The finer details

As the architecture was to be subservient to the art, a neutral material palette was chosen. The now simple white walls were stripped of as much detailing as possible like mouldings and skirtings. The circulation zones display lightly-textured grey limestone while the gallery floors are made from elegant Douglas Fir timber. The terrazzo stairs of the original structures have been repaired as well.

The simple lightning involved a complex process of fitting shallow stretched-fabric light boxes and a lighting track | Saatchi Gallery by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris | STIRworld
The simple lightning involved a complex process of fitting shallow stretched-fabric light boxes and a lighting track Image: Tim Soar, Courtesy of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

“The lighting is very simple…but it was actually a hugely complex process,” explains Allford. Working with German lighting company, ERCO, the galleries were fitted with shallow stretched-fabric light boxes and a lighting track. The diffused light from the boxes gives the impression of top-lit light wells. Most of the windows were blocked from the inside and fitted with deep light boxes to throw a warm glow. “From the street the listed building still retains its glory but, once you are within, there are no windows, except at the entrance level of the portico and at first floor where people can repose, relax, break away from the art and look out,” he adds.

The exterior façade retains the original windows which have been blocked on the inside and fitted with light boxes | Saatchi Gallery by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris | STIRworld
The exterior façade retains the original windows which have been blocked on the inside and fitted with light boxes Image: Tim Soar, Courtesy of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

The visitor’s experience

The journey, as Allford explains, begins not just from Kings Road where it is located, but for many it starts from Sloane Square station. One meanders along a retail street, through a generous courtyard and walled garden, past a restaurant, into a portico, and finally, into the generously restored, listed interior with two staircases – designed for boys and girls in the original function as a school. “…(this) creates a two-way flow which, in this current pandemic, is very handy,” he says. The public are then encouraged to go to the top and walk through the galleries in the old building and in the new extension, and to repeat the process on the second, first and ground floors.

Sparce yet poignant, the focus is always on the art at Saatchi Gallery | Saatchi Gallery by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris | STIRworld
Sparce yet poignant, the focus is always on the art at Saatchi Gallery Image: Tim Soar, Courtesy of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

“Charles Saatchi is personally very engaged in the hanging of his art. Scale, volume, view, vista, and a very minimalist hanging with often a very large wall with only one or two pieces of art on them transforms the setting; it gives the art space to breathe and to be viewed. That, in a sense, is where the gallery has its unique contribution to London. It has the density of visitors but not the density of the hang, it is the sparsest gallery but also the most intense so there is a focus on the art,” he concludes.

Private Museums of the World:
Curated by Pramiti Madhavji, STIR presents Private Museums of the World: an original series that takes you behind the scenes of privately-owned museums, sharing their origin with chats with art collectors, museum directors, curators and architects, who seamlessly come together to create the most unusual and amazing structures to host art collections.

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