Q&A | ‘Sustainability is a very important part of the Gilbert & George Centre’
The Gilbert and George Centre opened on 1 April in East London, just around the corner from where the artists famously reside in Fournier Street.
Inhabiting an ex-brewery on Heneage Street, just off Brick Lane, the new art space is designed by SIRS Architects, led by Manuel Irsara, and comprises a sensitive conversion of a 19th-century building with the artists’ vision for their legacy, as well as incorporating state-of-the-art sustainable design.
The gallery has opened with Gilbert and George’s Paradisical Pictures, made in 2019, which chime with the building’s sustainable outlook and small but jewel-like additions to the centre’s courtyard garden.
“We discovered Himalayan magnolias when we were in New Zealand for our show at Auckland Art Gallery,” say Gilbert and George. “There was one person in particular who was extremely kind and friendly and helped us in every way while we were there. He was absolutely charming and was half Syrian, half Scottish. He told us that he was a titled person in Syria, but he would never get the title until his father died, and he didn't want his father to die.
“He showed us strange trees and this Himalayan magnanimity,” they say. “We were so amazed we said that when we get back to London we will order one for the Gilbert and George Centre, which we did. The flowers have just bloomed. We took a photograph and send it on via the gallery, but they reported that the man died just the day before, so our Himalayan magnolia stands as his beautiful memorial.”
Fittingly, to coincide with the display of the Paradiscal Pictures, Gilbert and George will show their 2022 series, the Corpsing Pictures, at White Cube, Mason’s Yard in London’s Mayfair.
With an ethos that art should be free to all, the Gilbert and George Centre – just like the artists themselves – is an iconic addition to London. “The greatest invention of mankind is the free world,” they say. “And this is our little addition to the free world. It’s brilliant. You have all these museums and galleries in London, you have the Imperial War Museum, the British Museum, they’re all free. Now you have the G&G too.”
Free to enter, and with the lowest possible environmental impact, this new gallery delivers a lot. Manuel Irsara, the man behind the design, talks us through the project’s commitment to the sustainability agenda.
When did you start work on the Gilbert and George Centre?
It's been quite a long journey. It used to be a brewery, but it was purchased by Gilbert and George in 2015, when it was quite a dilapidated residential home.
What similar projects have you worked on?
We designed Gilbert and George’s studio back in 2010 to a very tailored design, to suit both their vision, and equally be very respectful with the spirit of the original building.
Have you worked closely with the artists on the centre?
Yes, very much so. The entrance gates are a highlight because they are designed by Gilbert and George themselves. They are probably the most unusual gates in London design-wise and they're hand-forged in wrought iron, which is a very old technique. It was a long process to bring their initial sketch to life with the blacksmith and the structural engineer, let alone begin the forging process. They have CRIII at the top, which links them to the living monarch, but they also incorporate the address of the site here, 5a, as well as the large letters G&G. It's a very playful design, very creative and very unusual.
How have you approached making the building sustainable?
That was a very important part of the design process. We wanted to be thoughtful about the conversion of the building and convert as much as we could without having to knock anything down and rebuild it. So, we reduced the demolition down to a very limited extent. We re-utilised existing brickwork, granite cobbles and roof slates on site as much as possoble. And where we couldn't use existing materials, we used recycled materials – for instance, all the wall linings are recycled gypsum boards. The insulation materials are recycled too. We’ve also tried not to use any petrochemical products. It’s been difficult to achieve because you find plastic everywhere nowadays. From a fire perspective it was a good decision because the vast majority of the building’s components we specified are non-combustible.
Are Gilbert and George passionate about sustainability too?
Absolutely. They've always been keen on using local materials – we have used English oak, Welsh slate and Portland stone through the building – and we’ve worked with local craftsmen and brilliant fabricators to try to keep the building’s impact to the UK. And in addition, we have an in-house art storage facility, which can store over 500 square metres of art, which enables them to have a very low carbon footprint because there is no transport and no shipping of their works anymore, which is one of the biggest contributing factors of the art world's carbon impact because artwork is flown back and forth all the time. The lift has been designed to the largest crate G&G have ever produced and also makes all areas of the building completely accessible.
What other low carbon elements to the building are there?
We have reduced the amount of natural light in the building's exhibition spaces to zero and used low-energy Led lighting with presence detection and automated controls throughout. We have a highly insulated external shell, which creates a very high thermal mass of the building. It is therefore very stable in terms of climate, requiring very little cooling and heating. The ventilation system recycles the air and there is an automated building management system, which is optimised via weather compensation, so we reduce the amount of heating we need. And we're also collecting rainwater, which is stored in an underground tank, and is then used for irrigating the courtyard planting. The courtyard itself features permeable paving to support sustainable urban drainage.
What is the most innovative aspect for showing art in this building?
The lighting is very special. It is especially designed for Gilbert and George’s largescale artworks. To light pictures of this scale is complex, you see, because they’re so large that normally you would see the reflection of the lights in the pictures, which we wanted to avoid. So, to eliminate this, the lighting tracks were positioned on a very steep angle requiring bespoke luminaires. With bespoke light fittings and accessories, we have been able to illuminate just the artwork so that they have a halo around them and glow. And that way, we can dim the stretch ceiling lights to a low level and the pictures really stand out. The walls have been painted in a light grey tone, which means the whites in the works become more prominent and the other colours are a lot more expressive.
Can the building’s specifications adapt to showing other artists’ work?
We’ve been very conscious about the fact that there may be other art shown here in the future. For this, we have a second lighting track around the stretch ceilings, which is set on a more conventional lighting angle. We've compressed all the tech into the ceiling to completely declutter the walls. It looks really simple but a lot of thought has gone into concealing all building services components so well. It is a calm but high-tech interior.