Interview: Iwona Blazwick, Whitechapel Art Gallery

[caption id="attachment_1653" align="alignnone" width="560" caption="Portrait by Neil Drabble"] Portrait by Neil Drabble[/caption] When Iwona Blazwick took up her post as director of the Whitechapel Gallery in 2001, one of the first decisions she had to make was whether to spend £900,000. The public library, which adjoins the gallery, was being moved to a sassy new David Adjaye-designed Idea Store further down on Mile End Road in east London, and the building was being offered to the gallery at a knockdown price. ‘I didn’t know it was a done deal until I got here,’ says Blazwick now, sitting in her meagre offices and fighting a fierce cold. ‘It was quite scary. I phoned everyone I knew; former colleagues from the Tate, artists, everyone, and they all said ‘Are you mad? This is the opportunity of a lifetime. If you don’t do it now, you’ll regret it forever.’ It was absolutely irresistible really.’ On 5 April, the world will be able to judge if Blazwick’s inability to resist was right. Combining the library, with its elaborate late-Victorian facade by Potts, Sulman and Hennings from 1891, with C Harrison Townsend’s Arts and Crafts-style gallery from a decade later, has almost doubled the Whitechapel’s size as well as its potential. It will no longer have to close between shows; it will offer a cosy and classy wood-panelled restaurant at street level (designed by Project Orange); it will have parts of its incredible archive on show; it will show work from other collections, starting with the British Council’s, and it will even have its own mini Turbine Hall, the Commissions Gallery, sponsored by Bloomberg, where artists will create site-specific installations. The first to be invited is 2008 Turner Prize-winner Goshka Macuga, who will bring together works by other artists and arrays of found objects to create new relationships between them.  Walking through the gallery, pre-completion, is an instant reminder of what lovely spaces the Whitechapel has always offered. The architects of the original conversion had created top-lit galleries throughout, and interestingly, the library building also had one or two of its own. In the new Commissions Gallery, Belgian practice Robbrecht en Daem, which is responsible for uniting the two buildings, has inserted funnel-like, angled skylights into its roof to bring light into the large space, where honey-coloured London brick walls have been cleaned and left raw. The skylights are the studio’s only visible intervention. Elsewhere, the architecture is stealthy, as adjoining spaces with differing floor heights are seamlessly brought together. The red-painted cast-iron banister of the old library staircase has been left in place, looking decorative but not mawkishly so, and stained oak and glass doors have been installed which politely reference the library’s past life of bookshelves and desks. Paul Robbrecht has said that he wanted to ‘create unforgettable spaces,’ not by knocking down walls and carving white cubes out of the old Victorian building, but by keeping its existing, history-soaked rooms and re-designating their usage.   Photograph by Richard Bryant Blazwick brought together a panel, including the artists Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread, to select the right architect for the job. They looked at proposals from Caruso St John, Foreign Office Architects, Patel Taylor, and Lacaton and Vassal, but the group was unanimous in choosing Robbrecht en Daem as lead architect with London practice Witherford Watson Mann. ‘I think because of its tremendous track record in working with artists,’ says Blazwick. ‘The practice has worked with Franz West, Cristina Iglesias, Gerhard Richter… The Deep Fountain that it did with Cristina outside the Museum of Fine Art in Antwerp is a masterpiece. The team has a great sensitivity about the artists’ work, and understands conservation restraints. Some of the other practices just wanted to get rid of what was here. They were aggressive somehow,’ she says. ‘And we admire Caruso St John so much, it was a privilege to have them interested, but they were already working for Gagosian. We wanted to bring something new to the equation. Robbrecht en Daem has a very organic aesthetic, not glass and steel, and it works with what is there.’  Blazwick is well qualified to speak about architecture. Her parents, both Polish refugees (her real name is Blaszczyk) trained as architects once they got to England and went on to work for the Greater London Council. They took her to Ronchamp when she was four; to the Hayward, and an Expo in Switzerland. ‘I remember totem poles,’ she says. They loved the Festival of Britain, ‘It was seminal for them, as was concrete,’ she laughs. It is perhaps from her late mother that she gets her enormous but seemingly calm determination. ‘She studied at North London Poly. She had a really thick eastern European accent, and was a woman but such a fighter.’ It certainly helps to explain how Blazwick went on to raise the £13m it has taken to get the Whitechapel project completed. It also explains her liberal hiring of architects, beyond Robbrecht en Daem. Apart from Project Orange, Dunnett Craven has created a bespoke reading bench, and besides others, 51% Studios is working on some of the offices. Blazwick intends to put a plaque naming all of them in the foyer.  Unsurprisingly, Blazwick, with her charming head-girlness (the sort of head girl that fourth-formers wouldn’t be afraid to talk to) has come to the attention of Boris Johnson. For the next two years, she will chair the London Cultural Strategy Group (CSG). ‘I’m not a conservative but I do like a lot of the way that Boris approaches things like conservation, and the environment,’ she says. ‘I’m not a million miles away from his approach. And also, it’s my town.’ (Born in 1955, she grew up in Blackheath.) And did she vote for Boris? ‘Er no… I don’t think I voted at all,’ she says, which could be true (raising that kind of money keeps you busy) or just impeccably polite.  [caption id="attachment_1670" align="alignnone" width="336" caption="Photograph by Richard Bryant"]Photograph by Richard Bryant[/caption] The CSG’s role, with just a small budget, is to advise on cultural issues. It is concerned with education; the outer boroughs, where cultural provision ranges from weak to non-existent; ensuring a cultural component in forthcoming developments. ‘It’s all about shopping centres. Instead of running to consumerism, we have to get developers to take culture on board and not just for the sake of getting planning permission,’ she says. And communication and access: ‘There are so many initiatives out there, but they need to be joined up. Then they’ll have weight and critical mass.’ This is, of course, talking the good talk, but Blazwick does it with conviction and experience, lots of it. She has come up through the curatorial ranks, via the ICA and later the Tate. She has worked at Phaidon producing a groundbreaking series of books on artists; curated shows in Europe and Japan, and taught curating at the Royal College of Art. ‘It was scary really,’ says Blazwick. ‘Because you were confronting your own nemesis, the new kids on the block. But I really learnt a lot too.’ There are many who say she will eventually head back to the Tate to take over from Nicholas Serota when he decides to relinquish his directorial post. Indeed, Serota was director at the Whitechapel from 1976 to 1988 and oversaw a £1.6m extension during his time there. The idea is hardly far-fetched.  Yet Blazwick, however deftly she deals with these powerful roles, doesn’t seem to take them for granted. Of the Whitechapel, she says: ‘You feel as if you’re stepping into a continuity, a great tradition here.’ The gallery has made a major contribution to life in the area from the day it opened, while the library was known as the University of the Ghetto. ‘It was exciting that it was the same vernacular as those iron-framed buildings in New York where, historically, minimalism was born. Because that whole loft thing in the 1960s, Gordon Matta Clark, Richard Serra, mirrored the same late-19th century architectural spaces with the tin ceilings. They are utilitarian, but decorative too. It felt quite appropriate for the kind of work that’s been made since the post-war period. It was born in a space like this,’ she says. Kicking-off that kind of work in the main gallery is a show of Isa Genzken, a multi media German artist. This will be her first retrospective. The future programme includes exhibitions by Elizabeth Peyton, Melanie Manchot and Sophie Calle. That’s a lot of women artists. I emailed Blazwick later to ask if there was anything intentional about this. ‘We just selected artists that we believe have a fantastic aesthetic and intellectual track record and are particularly significant at this time,’ she replied. ‘I think the presence of women at the forefront of contemporary art is inescapable.’ Indeed, and the presence of female directors too. picture-3

Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial

Compelo Ltd Registered Office: John Carpenter House, John Carpenter Street, EC4Y 0AN, England. No: 06339167.Copyright 2019 Compelo. All rights reserved.