When it opened in 1968 the Hayward Gallery – named after a former leader of the London County Council, Sir Isaac Hayward – was not only an exceptional example of brutalist architecture but also a new vision of what an art institution could be.
As part of the Southbank Centre, the UK’s largest arts venue, the Hayward was designed by a group of young architects, including Dennis Crompton, Warren Chalk and Ron Herron, to initially house the Arts Council collection. They devised three outdoor sculpture courts (which have unfortunately been largely underused over the years) and five gallery spaces presented over multiple levels that could be accessed and navigated from various points.
For the last 50 years, the Hayward Gallery has occupied a unique place within the landscape of London’s institutions, exhibiting a range of practices and artists, never limited by fashion or trends and never afraid to celebrate the revered or the contemporary. I recall when I saw Spellbound in 1996, one of the most captivating exhibitions I’ve ever had the privilege to experience and, over 20 years later, still has relevance today.
After the successful Carsten Höller exhibition in 2015 that involved flying contraptions and an alternative exit down two of his famous slides, the building closed its doors for important refurbishment. Costing a total of £35 million, the two-year renovation and essential repairs which retains the versatility of the concrete-clad exhibition spaces has been made possible through the generous support of the Arts Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund, various trusts and over 50,000 members of the public.
A major aspect of the refurbishment has been the work on the gallery’s roof that had been leaking for years. As a member of the Arts Council advisory board in the 1960s, Henry Moore had highlighted the importance of natural light.
So we’re sure the late British sculptor would be pleased that the drop Plexiglass ceiling in the upper galleries has been removed, which the Hayward Gallery’s director Ralph Rugoff referred to as ‘horrible’ in a recent interview with Apollo magazine. The changes now mean the spaces can be lit by natural light from the 66 pyramid roof lights.
At the reopening ceremony Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, was quick to thank those ‘who took the imaginative act of buying a pyramid’, which has been a major funding aspect of the mammoth project of returning a well-loved London cultural institution to its former glory.
To mark the gallery’s relaunch and its 50th anniversary, the Hayward Gallery chose to present one of the most coherent retrospectives of the German photographer, Andreas Gursky.
In the last 40 years the artist has only made around 240 works which, considering our age of digital image proliferation, is minuscule in comparison. Featuring around 60 works from the 1980s to today, you can meander through a visual archive of the last four decades that include early non-manipulated landscapes of Germany to the mind-boggling formations of Asian pubic displays.
As a student of Bernd and Hilla Becher in the 1980s at Dusseldorf Academy of Art – where he was until recently a professor – Gursky, along with his fellow students Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Candida Höfer, pushed the parameters of the photographic medium.
Fascinated by collective existence and its impact on the natural world, Gursky has said of his practice that centres around global economy and the quotidian of contemporary life which encompasses commerce, industry and tourism: “I only pursue one goal: the encyclopedia of life.’
There are the big museum works that display Gursky’s skill in digital manipulation that underpins his practice post-1992 – Paris, Montparnasse (1993) is a feat of brilliance as the panoramic image seizes the magnitude of Paris’s single largest residential building, Immeuble d’habitation Maine-Montparnasse II, with alluring yet constructed detail. But it’s the early works that really shine in this show, because of their unwavering directness. They are uncannily illicit in their ability to reveal what we see every day but more than often don’t look at.
Andreas Gursky is at Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX. January 25–April 22, 2018. Tickets: £7.25–£16.
Want to see more exhibitions in London? Here are the blockbuster shows to see in London.