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Building a white cube

Galleri F 15 is situated in a stately home in a park-like rural area 7 km. from the small town of Moss on the shore of the Oslo fjord. It’s a romantic situation not much changed since the house was built in 1870. For many years we have planned an extension to the gallery and a new gallery building. So far it is a project dependent on political good will, and has still some time left before it is realised. But the planning goes on.

Galleri F 15 is visited by approximately 75.000 people every year. Only 25 – 30 thousand actually pay the ticket and enter the gallery. The rest visit the park or the woods or the beach and use our cafeteria and the gallery buildings for rest and refreshments. For us it is naturally a central challenge to ‘lure’ these people to also visit the art exhibitions.

The Norwegian architects Lund and Hagem won a competition for a new gallery building as early as in 1997. In waiting for the project to be materialised I have discussed with the architects how a new gallery in a idyllic garden like ours should look like. How can we maintain the romantic overall feel of the place and at the same time keep up our profile as a gallery mainly for contemporary and ‘young’ art?

The solution we have found is to have two different approaches. Firstly we want to tear down the large barn building of the farm, and build a new house on the exact same spot. It will be a modern building and will only in its dimensions resemble the barn and keep up the fourth wall of the traditional square formed by the different farm buildings. This building will have qualities that will appeal to a broad selection of visitors.

But then we have gone a bit further and are now also planning to build a small white cube a little to the side and among some trees so that it will not easily be seen from the outside. The reason for this is that this building will be constructed from the inside out, and for this reason it will not have its architectonic values on the outside. This building is intended for more ‘hard core’ art exhibitions and projects and will mainly cater for the insiders of the art community.

Architecturally the concept of the white cube is strictly seen from the inside. In principle the white cube may be constructed inside any type of building from any historical period. Or for that matter it can be constructed on its own without any consideration to its exterior architectural qualities.

The white cube has been seen as an instrument for giving autonomy and integrity to a work of art. But it may also more practically be seen as a machine for showing art. The following is such a practical approach to the design of a white cube in the form of ten commandments for building an art gallery. The commandments have been developed in the concrete discussions that I have had with the architects. This is the result of a discussion between the manager of the gallery and the architect, and it’s fair to underline that the artist has been absent.
  1. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” A gallery shall first and foremost be a scene for visual art. This means that the building in its functions must subject itself fully to the needs of the visual arts. The term ‘white cube’ is tied to the ideas of late modernist and contemporary art, but the gallery must also be able to accommodate art of earlier periods.
  2. It must be possible to drive directly into the gallery with a truck or a car. Doors and passageways must be sufficiently wide and deep and lifts must be able to carry sufficient weights. Depots and workshops must be situated close to the gallery spaces and must have dimensions calibrated to the size of the gallery space.
  3. The gallery rooms must be very flexible and it must be possible to subdivide the rooms into smaller cubicles and areas. The difficulty here is to give the smaller divides good proportions. Maybe the divisions must be fixed, i.e. the rooms can be subdivided but only in certain predetermined ways. There must be the possibility of high roofs and low roofs; large volumes and small volumes. It must also be possible to turn all spaces into ‘black boxes’, for showing new media and video, but also to accommodate more theatre-like productions like performances and other happenings.
  4. The building and the galleries must be secured against breaking and entering and against theft. This means that the smallest possible staff must be able to ‘see’ what happens in all corners and behind all walls. This also means locking systems, alarms for intrusion and fire and surveillance systems. Against fire the building needs a system that does not include water sprinklers.
  5. All rooms must be fitted with extensive climate control systems. Both temperature and humidity must be controlled and kept within small margins. The systems must have both automatic and manual modes.
  6. Light is probably the most important variable. Firstly the light must be gentle towards the exhibited works. This means that there must be UV filters on the windows and all electrical fittings must be steerable. Secondly there must be possibilities for using many different kinds of light. It must be possible to get daylight both from the sides and from above. The artificial light must be absolutely flexible. There must be both a 220 volt system as well as a parallel 12 volt system.
  7. The galleries must have available and concealed all conceivable technical equipment everywhere in all rooms. Contemporary art uses all kinds of materials and often needs to be connected to everything from electricity and broad band to water and compressed air. Sound is both important and very difficult in this connection. The rooms must be built to avoid sound contamination.
  8. It must be possible to nail, bolt and put screws in all surfaces and it must be possible to hang heavy pieces from the ceiling.
  9. One must be able to paint all surfaces quickly and easily when needed. Even with a paint pistol. The material of the surfaces must be repairable or replaceable in a simple and cheap way.
  10. The treatment of the visitors must be conducted according to the best principles for service, comfort and security. Signs and information must be logical, understandable and discreet. The gallery rooms must be equipped for serving of food and beverages, and there must be facilities for having meetings and seminars. All escape routes must be automatic and all areas must be accessible for handicapped.