The Wapping Project, Shed 54's new London arts center, is a small but serious alternative to Tate Modern.
Suzanne Trocmé -- Interior Design, 10/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
When Jules Wright first walked into London's vast, abandoned Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, 20-year-old coffee cups littered the floor around the machinery. It was as if time had stood still since the facility closed in 1977. But Jules, a leading British theater director, started to mount events in the building's shell and to dream of transforming the relic into a center for the arts, complete with gallery, dance forum, and restaurant. All she needed for the first stage of the project was the help of Shed 54—headed by Australian-born architect Joshua Wright, who happens to be her husband—and a mere £4 million.
"I knew it would take years to build, but I had not anticipated how long it would take to raise the money," says Wapping's vivacious and commanding savior, who eventually secured the funds. And she did it almost single-handedly, without help from the National Lottery, a bonanza for British arts institutions since its inception in 1994. (Wapping lost out to the higher-profile Sadler's Wells Theatre, Royal Court Theatre, and Royal Opera House.)
The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, one of five of its kind in London, was built by the London Hydraulic Power Company in 1890. Before electricity was universally adopted, steam-driven hydraulic plants generated cheap, efficient power for everything from dock cranes to private residences in up-market Mayfair and Knightsbridge. In the heyday of hydraulic power, more than a million gallons of water a week were pumped through 186 miles of cast-iron pipes beneath city streets, raising and lowering anything that needed to move. However, as electricity became cheaper and electric-powered equipment more sophisticated, hydraulic power began to be forsaken. Two electric turbines arrived at Wapping in 1923, and the whole station was converted to electricity in the 1950s. One by one, stations built for hydraulic power closed until, in the mid-1970s, only Wapping remained. When it closed in 1977, it was the last in London, in fact the last in the world.
The surrounding area—on the north bank of the Thames, east of the City of London and west of the Canary Wharf development—had fallen into complete dereliction before the advent of the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1981. Since then, urban renewal has been remarkable, spurred on again by the opening of an extension to the tube's Jubilee Line in 1999. With increased accessibility and proximity to such other attractions as the Prospect of Whitby, a timber-framed 1543 pub that claims Samuel Pepys as an early patron, the Wapping Power Station was clearly viable as an arts center.
Joshua's first architectural concern was to restore existing features while making the structural changes needed to create a more logical, free-flowing space. "It was a question of sympathetic intrusions," he says. English Heritage supported the conversion of the Grade II listed building but requested that certain measures be taken because of its historical significance. (The London Hydraulic Power Company's flagship was used as a blueprint for power stations in other parts of Europe as well as in Argentina, Australia, and New York.) For example, water pipes had to be uncovered, recorded, and left in situ, an undertaking commemorated by the Wapping Project's first exhibit, in which artist Jane Prophet filled a portion of the gallery with a foot of water and hung fiber-optic cables from the ceiling so the light would be reflected.
Because of the limited budget, spaces remain relatively raw, and Shed 54 relied on steel, slate, glass, and Frost Design graphics for an altogether grown-up effect. An external staircase unites offices, bookshop, and kitchens; a hung staircase acts as an imposing entrance to the gallery in the boiler house, where the heavy exposed brick, pipes, and pistons—no white cubes here—mean that art must be bold to compete. Last summer, Jules persuaded the Keith Haring Foundation in New York to send over the graffiti artist's rarely seen Ten Commandments series of canvases, monumental pieces that exerted a truly powerful presence in the gallery's cathedral-like environs.
Constant reminders of the building's former life pepper the interior. Around the main hall, among industrial machinery still emitting a vague scent of grease, television screens show the work of other artists, particularly video artists. In the smart restaurant—Wapping comes with many of the accoutrements found at its high-profile cousin, Tate Modern—the seasonally rotating selection of furniture, supplied by Vitra, is for sale to anyone interested. A glass wall separates the restaurant from a stairwell where dancers perform while customers eat, mostly unaware.
Wapping's lack of lottery funding has actually proved an advantage artistically. Programs, exempt from regular government scrutiny and assessment, have more latitude to develop in exciting and imaginative directions, administered by the nonprofit Women's Playhouse Trust, which Jules established in the 1980s when she was deputy director of the Royal Court Theatre. Trained as a clinical psychologist, she made her mark there by exploring issues of gender, race, and class and integrating traditionally separate disciplines, concerns that continue to be central at the Wapping Project. "Art forms are limitless and interchangeable," she says.
For now, all facilities are found in the main engine, turbine, and boiler areas, and future phases, to involve converting water tanks on top of the boiler house and building a freestanding unit on the site of a dilapidated barn, will have to wait. Here again, however, the budget situation has its upside. Because each step in Wapping's development must be so carefully considered, the conversion has proceeded more cohesively than if, say, plans for a bookshop and auditorium had gone ahead immediately. "We might have wrecked it," Jules says, "putting in something conventional"—which Wapping certainly is not.