Brutalism Breathes Again: The Hayward Gallery, London
written by Natalie Ferris | edited by Lee Jiyoon | photographed by Morley von Sternberg (unless otherwise indicated) | materials provided by Hayward Gallery
The Hayward Gallery, which represents the voices of British contemporary art, has re-opened after a two year programme of external renovation and interior refurbishment. Since its opening in 1968, Hayward Gallery has been an iconic institution, speaking to the modern and postmodernist strands in the history of architecture and to international contemporary culture. Let us observe the renovation project of the Hayward Gallery, one which indicates a re-interpretation of contemporary art and architecture.
Brilliant triangles of colour, emitted from a rooftop across the Thames River, beckon visitors through the gloom of a grey day. The colourful display is an illumination of the renowned triangular structures that sit atop the Hayward Gallery, one of the cultural institutions that form the Brutalist spectacle of London’s Southbank. Flooding the glass triangles with colour, moving through the entire chromatic spectrum over a sixty-minute cycle, each hour starts and ends with a vivid red, changing to orange, yellow, blue, purple, pink, and all colours in between. These joyful flashing signals, the work of Scottish artist David Batchelor, were a harbinger of the reopening of the Hayward in January 2018, after a two-year programme of external renovation and interior refurbishment. Sixty-Minute Spectrum (2017) is now only on display throughout the night, part of the artist’s continuing exploration of the ‘intense, synthetic colour that characterises modern cities and the ways in which we respond to colour in our advanced technological age’. This is a clarion call, sent into the dark, heralding the vibrant future of an iconic London building. Founded on the principles of inclusion, the Hayward Gallery was designed to house and showcase the Arts Council Collection, a national loan collection of modern and contemporary art. Founded in 1946 to promote and encourage wider public engagement with and appreciation of contemporary art, the Arts Council collection is the largest national collection of its kind. Operating as a ‘museum without walls’, the collection is the most widely circulated of all Britain’s national collections, and remains dedicated to display that reaches the broadest possible audience, through loans to public institutions, touring exhibitions, and print publications. In continues to acquire works every year, as a means of safeguarding contemporary art, design and craft in the U.K.The newly reopened HENI project space, a side-room prior to entering the main exhibition spaces, dramatises this commitment. Currently on show are four recent acquisitions by Matthew Darbyshire, Ryan Gander, Amalia Pica and Simon Starling, ‘concerned in different ways with action and transformation’. They speak to the original mission of the Hayward – to support art that questions its place in the world, and that provokes its viewers to think about their contemporary moment.
The Hayward Gallery has always privileged the encounter between art and architecture. This has manifested itself in a number of pioneering exhibitions – such as ‘Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century’ in 1987, ‘Psycho Buildings’ in 2008 and ‘Light Show’ in 2013 – and in the maintenance of its own striking architectural expression. The initial concept for the building was introduced, with the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, as an addition to the Southbank Centre cultural complex. A team of architects, led by Norman Engleback with the support of young architects including John Attenborough, Warren Chalk, and Ron Herron, oversaw the new development, while Alan Waterhouse and then Dennis Crompton were responsible for designing the Hayward. It was built by Higgs and Hill and opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 9 July 1968. The unique qualities of this Brutalist building have polarized opinion in the five decades of its existence. It has weathered several demolition threats throughout its history, described by some as a ‘1960s concrete eyesore’, with its outdoor concrete walkways receiving the greatest criticism and threat of removal. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner compared the building to Piranesi’s fantastical prisons. However, as Rem Koolhaas once noted, the Hayward Gallery has never conformed to anyone’s expectation or model of what an exhibition space should be. From its distinctive volumetric interior spaces to its planar concrete façade, the Gallery was intended to be ‘a democratic experiment in risk-taking and aesthetic adventure’.
The Gallery’s director, Ralph Rugoff, (hereinafter Rugoff), recently echoed these sentiments: ‘The spirit of the mid 60s, when the building was designed, is really embedded in this architecture– the idea that there isn’t one route; that everyone should be making their own choices about how they go through something’. One of the great triumphs of the present refurbishment is the extent to which it honours this ‘democratic’ vision: all of the improvements made enhance the experience of the spectator, from the increase of natural light in the spaces, to the improved climate control, to the brightening of the concrete surfaces, replacing of the stone floors, and repaving of the sculpture terraces. Entering the main spaces, characterised by their vast concrete structural framework, there is a sense of being contained within an indestructible vault. Spread across several floors, there is no one directive path or layout. There are none of the distractions found in galleries or museums of comparable size, such as rooms housing permanent collections or lively passageways between shows and commercial spaces. Here, the only thing is the current exhibition, of which there are three to four each year. Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s philosophy ‘that half the meaning of any work of art is made by the viewer’, Rugoff’s Hayward forces the spectator to reckon with their own physical existence, faced with the imposing scale of its solid concrete staircases, pillars, and walls, as well as with the works on display. The architects tasked with the restoration and redesign of the Hayward, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (hereinafter FCB), have been loyal to the intensity of this viewing experience, but they have also, at points, allowed the outside world to present itself. Working on what was ‘primarily a conservation project’ costing approximately £35 million, FCB’s aim was to give the building ‘a new lease of life and a low maintenance future’. At ‘the heart of the project’ was the reinterpretation of the Hayward Gallery’s iconic pyramid roof, with the aim of introducing ‘controlled natural light back into the galleries’.
This ‘Light the Light In’ campaign, supported by the Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund, Southbank Centre and public donations, has revolutionised the upper galleries, which now bear certain resemblance to Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art. The most exceptional aspect of the refurbishment project is the pyramidal skylights, which originally took inspiration from the idea of an artist, the British sculptor Henry Moore. Engaged to advise the Arts Council during the design and construction of the gallery in the mid-1960s, Moore stressed the importance of natural light, ‘God’s good daylight’, to works on display, suggesting that the sharp concrete spaces demanded directive but subtle lighting. As a result, sixty-six pyramidshaped skylights were installed on the roof at the time of construction, but they leaked in inclement weather and the blinds installed to control light quality never worked. Eventually, the leaks forced installation of a false ceiling that blocked out natural light, reducing the height of the upper galleries by several metres, and limiting the work that could be shown. Now, in a stunning, transformative remodel, a series of elegant white coffer linings descend from the skylights. The glass pyramids have translucent glazing on two sides, with the other two remaining open to permit views of the sky from within the galleries. New retractable blinds are located on the underside of the new roof-lights, which will provide automatic daylight control, black out or individual control depending on the requirements of the curators. This solar shading controls the amount of light that enters the spaces and reminds visitors of their connection, and the connection of the art on display, to the world that lies outside.
The decision to host a retrospective of the German photographer Andreas Gursky (hereinafter Gursky), as the inaugural exhibition to mark this new phase in the life of the Hayward, was an inspired curatorial decision. His monumental photographs, which for the last four decades have found their extraordinarily detailed focus in ‘the way the world is constituted’, secure a suitably dramatic setting in the refurbished Hayward. Paying homage to the ‘audacious chronicler of our contemporary global economy’, the loosely-chronological exhibition takes in the full four decades of Gursky’s career, ranging from early works that are witness to the social uses of the landscape to those that visualise the immeasurable machinations of global capitalism.
Many of these images reveal Gursky’s feeling for, and interest in, abstraction. Works such as Brasilia, Assembly Room I (1994) amplify their subject – the lighting on the ceiling of a municipal building – and play with our expectations of what is worthy of our, and the photographer’s, attention. Untitled I (1993), a large photograph depicting a square of grey carpet in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, is a visual field that at a distance offers a consuming optical experience, but up close reveals the intimate material fact of each and every fibre of its making. As Gursky comments, ‘the extreme close-up defamiliarises the object almost beyond recognition’, becoming a medium through which he can more closely represent the world. More recent images, such as Untitled XVIII (2015), demonstrate the continued influence of abstract art across his career, with its gradated bands of seemingly solid colour. The photograph, enhanced by the clarity of light in the upper galleries, invites a similar act of double vision, at once an exercise in visual patterning as a demonstration of the scale of Dutch tulip farms. With such extreme distant viewpoints, Gursky reveals how much is liable to be overlooked – it is only by subjecting his work to the necessary scrutiny that its complexity reveals itself. Beginning to experiment with digital manipulation and post-production from 1992 onwards, Gursky ‘developed a mode of composition that gives equal importance to all elements of highly detailed scenes’. He makes spectacles of the busy patterns created by us in the urban and natural worlds, intensifying in colour and growing in scale to democratising effect, like a colourfield painting. Some critics have expressed distaste when faced with Gursky’s ‘god’s-eye view’, uneasy with an artistic practice that adopts an elevated ‘lookdown’ viewpoint and violates the trust established by photography. However, Gursky’s distortions of reality speak to us in an age of widespread surveillance and relentless self-imaging, impressing upon its audience the absurdity of the belief that any photographic image is inherently truthful. ‘A photograph’, Gurksy asserts, ‘is not what it depicts but a new fact’. ‘Art is about unlearning your habitual responses, so that your imagination can get off its leash, wander around and explore’: Rugoff’s commitment to the creative potential of these enhanced spaces will direct the rest of the Hayward’s anniversary year programme. The Hayward will celebrate its 50th anniversary year with a series of exhibitions that will focus on the relationship between art and architecture. The Korean artist Lee Bul, whose sculptures and installations draw on the legacies of utopian architecture, is the next artist to be featured, and she is planning a work for the façade that will be ‘like a glittering necklace’ installed in time for the gallery’s 50th anniversary celebrations on 7 July 2018. Rugoff has also been named the artistic director of the 2019 Venice Biennale, furthering his, and no doubt the gallery’s, progressive interdisciplinary approach to the art and architecture of the future.
Natalie Ferris is a writer, editor and researcher based in London. She is a junior teaching fellow 2018 at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and recently completed her AHRC-funded DPhil project, ‘Ludic Passage: Abstraction in Post-War British Literature 1945–1980’ at the University of Oxford, which she is currently revising as a monograph. She is a deputy editor of the Cambridge Humanities Review, an English editor of the architecture journal SPACE, and a freelance editor for the artists’ books press, Enitharmon Editions. She is a published arts and literary critic, writing for publications such as Frieze, The Guardian, Tate Etc., The Times Literary Supplement and The White Review, and catalogue essays for artists such as Veronica Hauer and Allen Jones. In 2014, she was awarded the Aidan Mellor Prize for Art Criticism.