The Gilbert & George Centre review – Ripper world meets the white cube

·6-min read

Gilbert and George have always liked to dress their provocation in conservative clothes. Even as their works combined enchantment with filth, illuminating blossoms and turds and bodies with the aura of stained-glass windows, they themselves have maintained the mien of country solicitors: immaculate ties and tweed suits, a permanent air of deadpan gravity, a well-documented admiration for Margaret Thatcher. “We want our art,” they say, “to bring out the bigot from inside the liberal, and conversely bring out the liberal from inside the bigot.”

So it’s in character that, as you approach the new Gilbert & George Centre in the East End of London – a place for the display, study and storage of their work – the first thing you see is a pair of blacksmith-forged gates, kitschy and crafted at once. A bit heraldic, with something too of the psychedelic graphics of a 70s LP cover, the ironwork spells out “G & G” in big swirly green letters – also, in gold, in liberal-baiting honour of our new monarch, C III R. This entrance leads to a sequence of objects and spaces that, as the centre’s architect, Manuel Irsara, says, brings together the conservative and the contemporary.

The gates open into a court of Dickensian cobbles and London stock bricks. The horizontal cantilevered roof of a new pavilion on the left, in which you can watch introductory films about the artists, hints that something more modern is afoot. It’s all neat and clean and uncrumbly and stinkless to a degree rarely before seen in these parts, but otherwise it looks much as it might have done in Victorian times. You then find your way into a low-ceilinged reception space, oaky and ochre in the style of a tastefully restored Landmark Trust rural retreat. Only after that, when you get to the clean-lined exhibition spaces, with their tuned lighting and suppression of distracting detail, the better to display the gaudy and luminous artworks, do you encounter what might be called the shock of the new.

The location is Spitalfields, the palimpsestic territory just to the east of the City of London, shaped by three centuries or more of immigrants, where the built-for-eternity stonework of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s greatest church coexists with jerry-built brick houses and workshops that have tottered on the spot for long enough to have become buildings of historic interest. It has been a place of dissenters and reformers, of deprivation and lurid crime. Here, the East End becomes a cinematic version of itself.

It required engineering gymnastics, and an astonishing 37 party wall agreements with adjoining neighbours

Significant contributors to the area’s history, as they have been there for more than half a century, include the artists, writers, architects, conservationists and other kindred spirits who, from the late 60s, started inhabiting the area’s then-disintegrating Georgian terraces, and restored them and campaigned effectively against their demolition. Gilbert and George, who moved into their handsome Spitalfields house in 1968, were part of this wave. Often seen walking the streets with their measured tread, they have themselves become a local conjoined landmark, latter-day pearly kings, a Hawksmoor church with legs.

The site of their centre, which under the banner of “Art for All” will be free to enter, has many ghosts. It includes a small old brewery building, the sort of opportunistic and noisome business that once flourished around here, and a nextdoor pub that was once frequented by two different men suspected of having been Jack the Ripper. More recently, notable architects, artists and writers have lived on and near this enclave – one, for example, was Theo Crosby, who designed the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. It requires some tact and restraint from the architecture to negotiate these many layers, which Irsara provides. His practice SIRS, based in Vienna and London, has designed apartments, a mountain hotel, a chapel interior – projects that involve taste and discretion. He’s also a nephew of the Gilbert half of the artistic pair, who, he says, “has had a profound influence on my life”.

The entrance court is a loose and open space, accommodating its many accidents of history, with new incidents added. The trees in a neighbouring garden, once belonging to the writer Jocasta Innes, lean into it. A new fence follows the pattern of a basic softwood balustrade on the pub’s balcony, and those ornamental gates are set into a 1980s quasi-traditional brick wall, retained and repaired. A quaint, Crosby-designed bay window is respectfully restored. A new wall has a diamond brick pattern, like an Argyll sock, because the planners were worried it would be too blank. There are cycle racks in the shape of gothic arches because Gilbert and George (though probably not Irsara) liked them. Perhaps the most arresting element in the whole space, the one to which people gravitate, is a single plant, a 15ft Himalayan black tulip magnolia, chosen because it reminds the artists of a lost friend and colleague.

At the same time there are upward turns on the dial of classiness – the fences and specially designed benches, for example, are in a tropical hardwood, iroko – that presage an interior of oak floors and furniture, bronze balustrades and brass trimmings, quality materials that will age gracefully. The visitor goes on a journey, from the expeditious and haphazard exterior to the environmentally controlled, precisely detailed exhibition galleries. There are three of these, dimensioned to suit the large artworks that Gilbert and George like to make – a high hall on the ground floor, a lower space in the basement below, and one on the first floor, beneath the retained and exposed trusses of the old brewery’s roof.

This project is, then, a case of Ripper world meeting the white cube, of the cheap structure of the old brewery, touched by the wealth and magic of contemporary art, being made into a significant cultural institution, while still looking much as it ever did. It’s a pumpkin turned into a carriage, while retaining some of its pumpkin-ness. It takes some fiction, contrivance and cost to achieve this effect. It required engineering gymnastics, now invisible, to hollow out the basement while propping the old fabric above it, and a volume of earth equal to half a swimming pool had to be extracted. An astonishing 37 party wall agreements, each one a tortuous legal document, had to be reached with adjoining neighbours.

You might say that it’s all a bit Marie Antoinette, this expensive remake of old grot. There’s also irresolution in the relationship of the architect’s polite modernism to the artists’ trad-guignol. Somehow, though it’s hard to say how, you feel that more of the architecture could be suffused with the spirit of Gilbert and George. It was, on the other hand, right to put this work in the neighbourhood that means so much to the artists, and such paradoxes as arise are arguably part of the endeavour’s power. It is a welcome addition to London’s stock of hidden troves, of personal and domestically scaled chambers of world-famous art. It comes, for good measure, at no cost to the public.