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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all