The new Whitechapel
This issue of Apollo celebrates the opening of the Whitechapel Gallery’s extension on 5 April. As the gallery’s director, Iwona Blazwick, explains to Michael Hall, the development reinforces the Whitechapel’s mission, which is both international and local in outlook.
Michael Hall, Friday, 27th March 2009
Before I could talk to the Whitechapel Gallery’s director, Iwona Blazwick, about its new development I had to negotiate locked steel doors, rooms crowded with furniture wrapped in polythene and interruptions from builders. ‘Yes, we are behind’, says Miss Blazwick. ‘We should have started installing works two weeks ago.’ She pauses and then smiles calmly.
Perhaps experience has taught Miss Blazwick such serene confidence. In her previous job, as head of exhibitions and displays at Tate Modern, she helped to oversee the transformation of Giles Gilbert Scott’s great power station into the country’s most popular gallery of modern and contemporary art. The Whitechapel project is a more modest architectural challenge – the extension of the gallery into the Victorian library next door – but in some ways it is more demanding, as it involves the transformation of buildings of a far more complex cultural and historical significance than Scott’s. Both gallery and library are rooted in the rich history of Whitechapel, which lies between the golden towers of the City of London – now somewhat tarnished – and the East End, home of the capital’s poorest and most culturally diverse communities.
The Whitechapel Gallery and its neighbour the Passmore Edwards Library (Fig. 1) share a very similar early story: both were late-19th-century cultural missions to the poor. The red-brick and terracotta library is the earlier building. It was designed in 1891-92 as the first in a series of free libraries in the area paid for by J. Passmore Edwards, the proprietor of a leading architectural journal, The Building News. Its architects, Potts, Son & Hennings, worked in the free classical style known as Queen Anne, which had strong associations with liberal philanthropy. The many immigrant Jews in the East End at the turn of the century eagerly welcomed the resources of a building that was called ‘the University of the Ghetto’, with one of Europe’s largest Yiddish collections.
Buildings mean a lot to Miss Blazwick – both her parents, Polish émigrés into post-war Britain, were architects. ‘When I arrived at the gallery in 2003, Tower Hamlets, the local borough, had said to the Whitechapel you can buy the library. The first thing I had to do was sign the contract. There had been various ideas about what to do with the library, many of which involved demolishing it. I tried to take stock. I thought we should restore it – it’s embedded in the history of the East End and it’s a wonderful building: it has a tower, and big windows that present themselves to the street. It reminded me of the Whitechapel’s earliest manifesto, that it should be a lantern. Those large windows are if you like a symbol of the Enlightenment and say something very public about the place of art.’
LATEST NEWS & COMMMENT
Brussels plays host to a trio of outstanding fairs at the Place du Grand Sablon in early June, and the ever popular Carré Rive Gauche – now in its 36th year – returns to the Left Bank in Paris.
The work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.
Apollo is published in London, one of the world’s great art capitals and home to extraordinary, thrilling exhibitions such as last year’s ‘Bronze’ at the Royal Academy