The Thrill of The Chase

I remember the first time I came across the word ‘iconoclastic’. It was used in an article about Miles Davis, specifically in connection with Davis’ transition from the cool ‘classic’ style that had made him famous, to the funkadelic electronic driven sound that confused and even alienated early admirers. Writers would later note that this behaviour was part of a deliberate strategy used by Davis to preserve his integrity as an artist. Every artist knows this struggle; you work to make your art, investing everything you have and are, you send it ‘out there’ in ‘fear and hope’ and then from seemingly far out across the void, there is a response. You are not alone. Steadily you get out of the pit you had dug for yourself, the precipice of means and existence whose jaws the artist must traverse to reach ‘the goal’. But registering commercially brings you back ‘to dry land’ so to speak.

Secure, you soon realise that, like a deep sea diver, your quarry, your very life lies at the bottom of the pit you’ve just escaped from. How to get back there? If you’re Miles Davis you abandon acoustic sound and cool suits. If you’re Caruso St John you abandon Modernist orthodoxy and visit it’s forbidden places in order to provoke it. Eventually a pattern is established, that of oscillation between commercial success and challenge, classicism and mannerism that serves to keep commodification at bay and ‘The Man’ at arms length. At least that’s what I think Caruso St John’s staircases at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery are about anyway.

The staircases

Sinuous encasement made of smooth, off-white brick, laid in a full bond (all you see is headers) with coarse colour-matched aggregate. An in-laid structural pre-cast concrete handrail profile (which might as well be stone, such is the quality of its finish) slices it’s way through the brick which crucially, the architect intended to be perceived as a ‘carved mass’ rather than a ‘construction of stacked units’. This handrail profile is mirrored on the other side of the staircase in white painted oak that winds it’s way down atop a solid engineered spruce-clad balustrade (also painted white) which itself forms an integral part of a precision engineered timber stair, all manufactured off-site in large sections. In between these two sides of brick and timber, the treads and risers are finished in oak with flush nosings and a 10mm shadow gap between them and the brick wall.

There are three such stairs; one triangular dog-leg at the main entrance and two elliptical; configurations that are not only at the more space-efficient end of the spectrum, but which also blur the line between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ form. The mythology of the helix is a chiefly a modern -if non-architectural- one, but in terms of staircases perhaps sweeping late-Georgian/Regency conjures the most successful examples of it’s employment. The materials in which the staircases are disposed however take them ‘outside time’ in fulfilment of CStJ’s stated aim of making buildings that seem neither modern nor traditional, but they are also perhaps due to this, tectonically ambiguous. The treads, risers and balustrade of each stair are all of a precision engineered piece but are not disposed as such. Having decided to employ oak treads and an oak handrail CStJ could have decided to have the handrail varnished instead of painted white and the belly and sides of the stair in a matching varnished veneer (a la Loos). This would have been the obvious thing to do perhaps so why wasn’t it done? Budget constraints? Would it have looked too traditional for their taste perhaps? If the intention was to unify the two sides of the stair and to circumvent their differing materialities by colouring them both white then this hasn’t really worked. There is a different white for every part; warm for the brick, greyish and hard for the concrete and brilliant gloss for the timber. Even the white painted oak and white painted engineered wood look different.

The groaning white hull of the stair composed of pieces too large to have been executed by human hand. It’s a disorientating experience. It’s impeccable but something jars a little; there are junctions and kinks that a craftsman perhaps wouldn’t tolerate. Perhaps this says more about what is possible in the times in which we live than about CStJ’s judgement. Perhaps this can be read as a forlorn commentary on our impoverished times, in the way that Rossi’s architecture was a commentary on what was absent in contemporary architectural culture, (with the important difference that CStJ are clearly having more fun than Rossi ever did).

The gallery spaces

The white of the gallery walls is different again -brilliant Matt- and the absence of skirtings, architraves, shadow-gaps or even proper doorways present ‘space’ at its most abstract, in stark contrast to the figuration of the staircases . Encountering space in this manner is an exhilarating experience, the perfect white walls ‘simply’ meet the beautiful acid washed concrete floor in perfect unresolved duality, each surface enhancing the other. The ceilings are a hard-won triumph of resolution and integration, a few lines of track-lighting and the odd tiny dimpled dome, are all that betray the heavy servicing function it must have. The white spaces simply, ‘flow’ into one another (there are doors-folded open, of plaster with no frames) but you never really lose the feeling that you are in a discrete ‘room’. The fact that the next thoroughly resolved space you encounter is always so different in character from the last (a large expansive flattish space followed by a tall thin space with a mysterious Rapunzel balcony for example) helps this.

On the ground floor, light is mainly admitted through frosted high level windows which approximate to the size and shape of the John Hoyland canvasses. This and the extreme abstract whiteness of the gallery spaces (which is really a sort of extreme semi-abstraction, because of the size and shape of them is so controlled- like an Alvaro Siza building turned inside-out) leads me to believe that these spaces were designed specifically for this opening show of colourful semi-abstract pieces, thus there is a feeling of almost effortless ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ pervading the whole on the ground floor which the staircases are not allowed to interrupt and which threatens to render the paintings as mere decoration.

On the first floor, it’s a slightly different story. The spaces are mainly top lit (the largest, rather extravagantly via the spiky, rather than saw-tooth rooflights) and the tacit ‘roomness’ slightly evaporates into something a little closer to a continuum, but it’s yet another layer of character and only serves to enrich the overall experience of the building. It’s a bit of a shock to suddenly see the old timber roof trusses preserved and painted white, and sort of cruel too, like being awoken from my matt-white dream with ice cold water. Understandably, Caruso St John couldn’t bear to part with them, but given the complete absence of such remnants in the rest of the building they feel slightly incongruous to me.

Urban presence

The external facades of the new brick buildings are very very sophisticated and bear more relation to the white internal spaces than their sister (in materiality) staircases in my opinion. A beautiful deep, dark ‘incinerated Ochre’ ‘rusticated’ brick base- all in headers again- runs from ground to oversize door-height. At lower level door and window openings, heads and cills run through in stacks; a ‘haughty’ single course for the former and a slight and absolutely necessary ‘nod’ ‘to falls’ on the latter. Above the base, things are more relaxed in the sense that the brick is less harshly produced and the bond more recognisable, but of course the same marshalling precision is at work. The openings themselves are gracefully set within the brick facade, ever so slightly stretching convention and obeying the visual laws of composition rather than statics. This is vintage Caruso St John, the perfect balance of expression and minimalism; adherence to good builders logic and subversion of it when it is warranted. From any kind of distance these buildings would look bland but for the spiky hairdo of the one and the just-short-of-amusingly-large penthouse balcony of the other. Thus the external design of the new buildings is driven by a concern for decorum; both of construction technique and urban form but this is not to say that no license is taken, it’s just that it’s taken with complete understanding. If the staircases are ‘mannerism’ then these new facades are, ‘maniera’.

The existing brick buildings have been sandblasted and cleaned to within an inch of their lives and, dare I say it, have a ‘pickled’ look. Some windows , presumably irreparably damaged, have been replaced for like while the rest have been have been retained. All are painted the same dark grey and almost all are blind (plasterboard running behind them internally) and look a bit unreal like painted matter. Is this the behest of planners at work, insisting that the facade be entirely preserved, or is this a subtle link to the work of the gallery’s owner? Once the decision was taken to create the white internal world earlier described, surely the correct architectural decision with respect to the external facade would have been to brick up these defunct openings or change them in some other way that explains/indicates the change in function (perhaps in the manner that Herzog & de Meuron bricked up the openings of their Caixa Forum building in Madrid)?

Conclusion

This is perhaps two buildings, rather than one. The stairs are a slightly funky world unto themselves, quite separate from the cool gallery spaces and the tailored new facades. When I first read about the white galleries with no connection to the outside, I thought that they would present an overwhelming and exhausting architectural experience, but they are arguably the most successful aspect of the scheme and don’t deserve to play second fiddle to the staircases which in my opinion are, although striking, virtuosic and daring, ever so slightly disconcerting by comparison.

The ovoid outline of flush headers set-out by hand to piano-wire plumb-lines is delightful, but the struggle to transfer the geometry to the stair and to resolve it in practical and functional terms remains apparent. Then there are the brick ceilings which although impeccable, have enough loose threads to eventually kybosh the architect’s notion of sculpted fired-earth.

If a ‘carved mass of pale brick’ is what was aimed at then perhaps what you actually want is ‘less precision’ as with Lewerentz’s St Petri church for example. In that building the tyranny of the whole brick pervades but here it’s perhaps the obsessive compulsivity of the architect that is paramount. Their precise approach in this context, has only served to render tectonic ambiguity as deficiency as Kucharek noted in his review for the RIBA Journal. Would a simple concrete lid have been better I wonder? It certainly would have been less interesting.

I found the white timber stairs themselves to be very obviously and uncompromisingly-if impressively-machine made, quite without the kind of individualised craft that often provides beautiful solutions to little problems on site. Seeing these after Tate fish-scale stair, I’m now convinced that this is a problematic approach. The struggle to get things right on site can’t be replaced by the facility engendered by ‘the machine’ as it is that struggle that is the pathway to beauty, the human senses simply won’t be fooled, no matter what the numbers say. Neither can this struggle be substituted by valiant neurosis at the drawing board. For all their brilliance as technical achievements and joyful spectacle, the timber stairs have not very much more grace than precision engineered Scandinavian furniture, and this in conjunction with the tectonic ‘faux pas’ of their brick-lined ‘cases’, renders these parts of the building a little soulless. Although it can never be totally absent with an architect such as CStJ at the helm, Mies van der Rohe’s ‘struggle of the human spirit’ is certainly suppressed here.

It’s probably true to say that Caruso St John’s fate was well and truly sealed when, having settled on the ellipse, they chose to make the cases to the stairs in brick and to explore the limits of advanced technology in reproducing the effects of craft. In critiquing what they have done I’m really at a loss to suggest viable alternatives (St Petri is impossible in 21st century London for all kinds of reasons). I’m reminded of an observation made by one of my former tutors who noted that ‘most architectural problems are self-imposed’. Caruso St John undoubtedly knew what every, chunky slip and electronically-determined joint would mean in the same way that old-school jazz musicians knew how to play classically. So is this about some kind of polemic?

On first viewing the staircases in magazines (which seem to photograph very well), I expected that I would find them as modern versions of Michelangelo’s Laurentian vestibule or ‘ricetto’ on visiting and indeed, the dislocation of the stairs from the gallery spaces could perhaps have been turned to more advantage in this regard, making them into real ricettos (refuges). Despite the compelling architectural experience of the white galleries, it is nice to escape from them into the semi-externality of the brick shafts, but it’s an escape that could have been further enhanced by providing more views out from them. Indeed one of the staircases has a lovely view out towards some housing which isn’t itself very appealing, but which is a delight to behold having just viewed the art. From this point of view it would perhaps have been better if the staircases could have been further integrated into the experience of moving through the building to view the art it contains, as Brendan Woods notes in his review for Architecture Today.

This is an interesting and typically sophisticated work by Caruso St John that pushes the boundaries of both technique and taste in pursuit of an apparent desire to do ‘something different’, perhaps as an admirable challenge to deeply held convictions as much as anything else. A very good architect (the same one who talked about the struggle of the human spirit in fact) once said;

‘I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good’,

Well. The thing is, that the white galleries and sophisticated external brick facades are ‘both’ interesting and good and it would have been enough, for me at least, if the internal vertical circulation had continued in the same vein. With the stairs, perhaps Caruso St John are demonstrating that just like Miles they have exorcised Mies.

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