The area between Angel and Hoxton in London is a mass of building sites as this area is gradually redeveloped, taking advantage of the canals which provide fingers of water onto which many of the new residential apartments will face. In amongst this redevelopment are two old, but transformed, warehouse buildings, Nos 14 and 16 Wharf Road, tucked behind a ubiquitous drive-through McDonald’s, whose main customers appear to be the building workers busy transforming the area. These two warehouses are home to two art galleries, Victoria Miro and Parasol Unit in one of the most interesting contemporary gallery spaces in London.
In 2000, Victoria Miro opened the gallery at 16 Wharf Road in a converted furniture factory with exhibition spaces on two floors and a secluded garden at the rear overlooking a restored stretch of the Regent’s Canal. In 2006 the gallery expanded further by opening a new space on the top floor.
The new space was designed by Claudio Silvestrin Architects and executed by the project architects Michael Drain Architects to provide galleries, viewing rooms, and offices for Victoria Miro. The complex provides a base for Victoria Miro and for Parasol Unit. While separate organisations with separate galleries with their own entrances off the street, the spaces interconnect through the garden at the rear and open off a long narrow staircase that runs up the entire height of the building, as if hidden between the walls of an Egyptian pyramid. Unusually, Victoria Miro’s gallery leaps from the ground floor to the second and then to the new double-height space which floats at the top of the refurbished Victorian building, its simple sculptural form creating a landmark in the area with the south façade illuminated through the tall windows by Ian Hamilton Finlay’s neon installation, The Seas Leaves the Strawberries Waves (1990)..
The galleries have the cool restrained style of The White Cube with both polished concrete and timber floors, retaining some old internal warehouse features such as the staircase within the Parasol Unit, refurbishing and adding the new contemporary elements such that this is one of the most architecturally-interesting contemporary galleries in London; it takes the style of The White Cube but gives it a new architectural twists and finesse, taking maximum advantage of the views across London that can be seen from the upper levels.
“There is probably nothing new here. The section is fascinating, the journey through the building is eccentric, he views and the mechanics involved in creating the openings to allow them are formidable, the lighting is good, but it has all been done with a lightness of touch and a skill which belies the youth of Drain’s practice. This is not a radical gallery; it adds little to the debate about the politics of found space versus the white cube other than a juxtaposition which allows you to judge the typologies side-by-side in an identical urban condition. But as big as the artist institutions continue to conceive ever more outlandish architectural logos, it does show what can be done with an ambitious and thoughtful client and a blend of architectural and cultural intelligence.” (Edwin Heathcote in the Architects Journal)
The Parasol unit Foundation for contemporary art is a not-for-profit” organisation founded in 2004 by art historian and curator Dr. Ziba Ardalan which runs a “forward-thinking and challenging” exhibition programme that has brought many international artists to London. The current exhibition is of the work of the Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros (Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez) who have previously been seen in London in a small way at Art 14. This is their first major exhibition in London and comprises work in a variety of media including installations, sculptures, watercolour drawings and film.
Their work has a political edge as it examines the “relationship between art and society, form and function, practicality and frivolousness.” For example, the installation Tomates, consists of walls of beautiful ceramic tomatoes which have been soiled by the blood-red stains from more than 200 real tomatoes splattered against the wall, 17m comprised a 17-metre-long rail on which more than two hundred black suits are hung, all cut through with the star from the national flag and Robotica, built from LEGO bricks, echoes Soviet monuments and reflects on the relationship between Cuba and the USSR. The upper gallery shows more architectural work with drawings and models derived from prison structures, some of which have developed into reading rooms for other commissions.
In the Victoria Miro galleries, the American artist Sarah Sze’s has an exhibition comprising three installations – one on each floor – in which explores our concept of space, mass, time, and volume through a variety of everyday objects including rock, newspapers and furniture.
The future residents of the new developments in the area are fortunate in having these galleries on their doorstep. There are still other warehouses in the area; an opportunity for more galleries of this quality perhaps?