The Saatchi Sensation
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 8/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Say what you will about ad mogul Charles Saatchi and the Young British Artists whose careers he launched—a neutral response is hardly an option. More than a decade after the movement's emergence, the Saatchi Gallery's new London home is inspiring impassioned reactions, too. Not to mention ironic commentary. Recently refurbished by RHWL Architects, the gallery's 1922 Ralph Knott building had once served as the seat of London's municipal government until it was disbanded by Margaret Thatcher—elected with the help of the Saatchi slogan "Labour Isn't Working."
After a Japanese company purchased the erstwhile County Hall for inclusion in a family-friendly complex of hotels, restaurants, and cultural offerings, Saatchi leased a cluster of high-ceilinged rooms on the building's ground level. The 40,000-square-foot space is a far cry from his former white-box gallery in North London. However, Damien Hirst's vivisected barnyard animals and Tracey Emin's smutty boudoir installations—now thumbing their collective noses at the establishment from the new Saatchi Gallery's stately, Edwardian-style confines—still have the power to provoke and often shock.
The building's Grade II listing protected the exterior and principal floor from stylistic modernization. Oak flooring and paneling in corridors and former offices was restored; plasterwork was smoothed over and repaired, save for hairline cracks lending historic charm. RHWL also reinstalled original bronze hardware and clocks, rescued from the basement. One room required no major alterations: the domed Egyptian-revival conference hall, whose indigo marble columns, gilded capitals, and glass chandelier were in perfect condition.
The interior's shell may look faithful to its original state, but appearances can be deceiving. "We worked closely with English Heritage to protect historic features while invisibly incorporating 21st-century interventions," says RHWL project architect Jelena Tomic. The hidden "James Bond" upgrades, as she calls them, include modernized plumbing and electrical wiring as well as a system of magnetic locks to seal off individual rooms in the event of fire. Wall sections that blend seamlessly with the interior have actually been engineered for temporary removal, allowing galleries to accommodate work as large-scale as Hirst's 20-foot-high painted-bronze Hymn. To facilitate the installation and de-installation of pieces this size, a concealed door in the conference hall turned gallery opens onto a 2-ton art lift with access to a loading dock. The secret elevator could also come in handy in the case of an art-world riot—never underestimate the importance of a quick getaway.