The Photographers' Gallery: A building that extols the calm virtues of still life

The new Photographers' Gallery reframes how we view images

The Photographers' Gallery, which pulled half a million visitors a year to it famously clunky previous home in Great Newport Street, now occupies an ex-Edwardian rag trade sweatshop in Ramillies Street, at the northern edge of Soho. The £9.2m building, part funded by the Lottery, which has just opened, has been extended vertically by two deep storeys and remodelled internally by the fêted Irish architects, John Tuomey and Sheila O'Donnell. They have produced what might be described as "slow" architecture.

Those who have visited the Glucksman Gallery at University College, Cork, will know what O'Donnell and Tuomey are about. They are profoundly interested in towers and controlled outlooks; they love crafted details; they delight in juxtapositions of tough natural materials; and they know how to create space that feels still. Their buildings have a rather distinct sense of weightiness. No surprise, then, that the Photographers Gallery has a very characteristic sense of materiality and heft.

Its vividly energetic director, Brett Rogers, particularly relishes this aspect of the design. "There are so many images, everywhere," she says. "And the speed of them! People don't take time over images. The Photographers' Gallery is about engaging people with the history of photography. It's about slowing people down."

What takes the architecture of the Photographers' Gallery beyond mere dryness is the way O'Donnell and Tuomey have successfully created quite distinct shifts of interior ambience in different parts of the building.

The architects' interest in towers has produced a singularly striking external feature: a big, north-facing "periscope window" that juts above the raised box of the building's roof.

The revised architectural language of the building's exterior is pretty straightforward. Polished black terrazzo wraps around the corner of the building, announcing its reception and cafe segment; the vertical extension – a three-storey "lift" that contains two high-ceilinged galleries – is signalled by black cladding over the 1910 brickwork; and the public entrance is composed of nicely crafted timber panelling. Externally, the architectural effect is oddly ambiguous: distinct and logically demarcated, but in a very appliquéd way, and not quite producing a satisfying sense of overall composure.

Inside, however, the architecture of the spaces work beautifully. The quality and atmosphere of the two new upper galleries are exceptionally satisfying. These are calm, specifically unfunky spaces, perfectly able to handle big, expressive hangs. The opening shows – three section from Edward Burtynsky's OIL (featuring Extraction and Refinement, Transportation and Motor Culture, and The End of Oil) and the Delhi-based Rags Media Collective's An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale and 36 Planes of Emotion – will test these rooms.

The upper galleries, and the windowless climate-controlled space for delicate historic photographs, have a stillness that will strongly emphasise what's being exhibited. On the top-floor gallery, the "periscope" brings in abundant north light and views across rooftops.

Another level down, the gallery space gains an angular east light from a small-glazed, appendix-like space at one end of it. A storey lower still, the Eranda Studio, an education room with a brilliantly devised hinged dividing wall, makes do with the building's original, iron-framed windows on two sides.

There is a spacious basement bookshop with a dedicated print-sales room just off it, containing the celebrated works of 37 of the world's greatest photographers.

Brett Rogers knows that she's in control of spaces of great curatorial and viewing quality. But she wants the Photographers' Gallery to be known for more than that. "This has to be seen as a social place, a community," she says. That's why she will ask Westminster Council to allow her to display, or screen, photographic work on the big, blank brick wall leading to the cut at the top of Ramillies Street.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker