After 15 years, the Crafts Council Gallery is back in action following a revamp to give the grade II listed former chapel a more welcoming public face and a reworked exhibition area, says Pamela Buxton
‘It’s definitely not a white cube gallery,’ says AOC’s Geoff Shearcroft of the practice’s Crafts Council gallery and front-of-house revamp. It's certainly far more interesting than that – its use of natural clay plaster, ebonised timbers and curious ‘found’ features achieving the ambition to create a tactile and sensory space.
For 15 years the gallery in London’s Islington had been closed to public exhibitions after the organisation turned its focus to national initiatives with partner organisations. Now the space has opened once more, with AOC’s redesign enabling the Crafts Council to present a far more welcoming, public-facing aspect to its activities.
The 19th-century, grade II listed building, originally a Methodist chapel with a lofty galleried worship space, has had its fair share of reinvention over the years. After 70 years in its original use, it became a mission and then, rather incongruously, a dental equipment showroom. By the time it was taken over by the Crafts Council in 1991, the storeys had been altered to infill the worship space and create an additional floor level within the same envelope – the lowered ceiling is clearly visible, cutting across the originally proportioned windows.
AOC’s task was to rework the exhibition area and front-of-house space and, at the same time, integrate a new study/library area as part of a 320m2 hybrid public space. The focus was on creating a sequence of spaces, from forecourt to gallery, that framed views in and out.
Those unfamiliar with the gallery won’t realise the significant improvements the practice has made at the entrance, since the end result, in a good way, looks as if it’s always been there. Here, the steps up to the Ionic portico have been widened across the full width of the building in Portland stone. This both amplifies the building's impact and creates a pleasant place to sit and linger overlooking the forecourt, which serves as a useful buffer to busy Pentonville Road. A previous, unsatisfactory attempt at creating disabled access has been replaced as part of these changes with the integration of a platform lift to one side and useful handrails.
Where there was once a small shop, the front of house is now a pleasant lobby/reception transition space. The material choices here set the tone for the rest of the project, and according to Shearcroft, aim to walk the line of being tactile without being ‘too folksy’. Here we first encounter the natural clay plaster, used in blue in the lobby and in off-white throughout the gallery, and teamed with ebonised chestnut, used here as super-size architraves. The ebonised chestnut and ash used in the project was grown and finished by furniture-maker Sebastian Cox, who also created the furniture in both the welcome area and the study/gallery.
A large central window on an axis with the main door gives views into the inner main space. Here, AOC opted to locate the library and study prominently at the front rather than tucking it away at the rear. The design of the loose furniture and perimeter shelving is another collaboration with Cox, who created large, domestic-style tables where people can sit down and peruse volumes from books arranged on wall shelving. This is made in ash with ebonised sweet chestnut surrounds, and interspersed with display spaces for objects from the Crafts Council Collections.
Beyond the seating is the main display space, which AOC approached as a ‘found’ space, warts and all.
‘It had to feel refined and reverential to the context but at the same time not too precious,’ says Shearcroft.
The once-lofty, worship space had long been compromised by the addition of the new infill floor, and concrete columns to support it. The practice embarked on what Shearcroft calls ‘light–touch archaeology’ to increase the floor-to-ceiling height by 950mm at its lowest point. This involved removing the raised floor, which also revealed the original surface, an attractive herringbone parquet. This find, however, came with two potential concerns which AOC chose to embrace as character-forming rather than seek to remedy. Firstly, the original floor slopes away considerably – a 250mm drop-off towards the rear. And secondly, each column is surrounded by concrete infills, integrated rather carefully into the herringbone pattern. Rather than balk at the disruption to the parquet, the architects were happy to retain these, seeing them as ‘pixelated surrounds’ to the columns.
AOC also created extra height by removing the ceiling linings and introducing painted timber beams, which are used to mount the lighting and give a rhythm to the ceiling. Perhaps the most effective new element is the large, stretched Barrisol lightbox on the centre of the ceiling. As it glows it gives the illusion of more gallery height, and also references the original soaring chapel of 200 years ago.
The gallery is currently occupied by the exhibition, Maker’s Eye: Stories of Craft (until 21 August), which shows objects from the Crafts Council Collections as selected by 13 makers including Assemble’s Amica Dall and Giles Smith.
It’s good to have the gallery back in action. The rethought gallery space has given the Crafts Council potential for programming more public-facing activities both inside and out, with the more welcoming forecourt a possible venue for events and pop-up installations.
‘It’s physically complete but feels like the beginning of the journey for the institution,’ says Shearcroft.
Crafts Council Gallery, 44a Pentonville Road, London, N1 9BY
Architect AOC Architecture
Services engineer Ritchie+Daffin
Structural engineer Engineers HRW
Quantity surveyor Stockdale
Main contractor BRAC