NEIHEISER ARGYROS

Gallery House – Xristina Argyros and Ryan Neiheiser. Imagining Architecture Beyond the End Times, 2017.

“Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many paintings that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse.’’

― The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde[1]

 “I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent, and shown to the future what the past has suffered… Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour.”

― John Berger[2]

1_ Art House

The rooms that contain art and audience have evolved radically over the past three-hundred years. Terms have changed and meanings have transformed. The arrangement of images on walls and bodies in space, and the architecture that curates where and how these relationships form continues to evolve. Although today the art gallery is commercial, and the house is domestic, a look back at the recent lineage and evolution of art display spaces reveals that this separation hasn’t always been so tidy.

A house used for the display of art is not a new phenomenon. Prior to the twentieth century establishment of the modern museum, viewing art was predominantly a social and often domestic affair. The famous French salons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were cultural gatherings of intellectuals where politics, philosophy, and the arts were discussed and debated within private homes. While the display of art was secondary to the conversation in these early salons, Lemmonier’s painting Le Salon de Madame Geoffrin (Fig.1) nonetheless shows the nascent form of the art gallery developing out of this domestic institution.  By the late 18th century the salons transitioned from private homes to more public and semi-public institutions. Such was the famous Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, later to be held at the Louvre, where the walls were entirely taken over by framed art. Yet, as the painting The Paris Salon of 1785 reveals (fig.2), even when moved out of the home, the salon remained primarily a social event. While art fills the walls, it acts mostly as a backdrop for the various conversations taking place in the room.

In 1824, the English banker Julius John Angerstein opened up his home to share his personal collection with the public. His residence at 100 Pall Mall in London would house the core of the new national collection until the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square opened its doors in 1838.[3] Frederick Mackenzie’s painting of Angerstein’s home reveals a setting that is both domestic and public, formal and informal (fig.3). Art continues to occupy every available surface on the wall – as this had become the conventional model of institutional display at the time – while only a few figures and furniture are scattered around the room, giving it an air of domestic intimacy and comfort.

In the early 20th century, Gertrude Stein’s Saturday evening gatherings at her Parisian living room-turned-gallery were both popular and critical for the development of modern art. There, artists such as Matisse and Picasso would unofficially exhibit their work in an environment that was comfortable and informal. The photograph of Stein’s living room is striking compared to Madame Geoffin’s salon, because it is so casually inhabited; the chair rotated just slightly, to suggest the recent presence of its occupant (fig.4).

In Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, there is only one place that offers a perfect combination of art and social interaction. The Grosvenor Gallery in London, which Wilde used to frequent, was a gallery unlike others at the time.  Instead of paintings beings cramped together on high walls, works were hung in single bays, encouraging each work of art to be contemplated in isolation, producing ‘’a sublime interaction between viewer and painting.” [4] (fig. 5) Contemporary museums and galleries have all since adopted this method of focused and isolated display.

While art spaces shifted over time from private to public, paradoxically, the experience of viewing art shifted from being a social act to being one of individual contemplation. Conversation inside the contemporary gallery is kept to minimum, allowing the works of art to be the principal narrator. And unlike Angerstein’s home or Stein’s living room, the contemporary gallery has been spatially and materially sanitized, wiped clean of any domestic trace. The contemporary gallery is closer to the original meaning of the word museum, which has its roots in the ancient greek word mouseion – the seat of the Muses, a purified space for contemplation. [5]

2_Gallerie House

The meaning of the word gallery today – a space for displaying, contemplating, and purchasing art – is very different than it was in eighteenth and nineteenth century France, where Beaux Arts architects used the term gallerie to describe a covered passageway with rooms located on one side, and a row of windows on the other for viewing the landscape. It was a space for pleasant conversation and a casual stroll,[6] but it also served to connect distinct rooms, operating something like a contemporary corridor.

According to Robin Evans in his essay “Figures, Doors and Passages,” the architectural plan ‘’describes the nature of human relationships,” and the corridor was precisely developed to minimize unwanted and embarrassing human interaction in Victorian England. The corridor evolved to help distinguish between ‘’serving’’ and “served’’ spaces, and to promote privacy, comfort, and independence within the domestic environment.[7] For Evans, the corridor functions as a distributor of space that allows for spatial hierarchies to become apparent, but it also reduces all friction and inhibits communication. (fig. 6)

The word corridor comes from the same root as courier, and according to Mark Jarzombek in his essay “Corridor Spaces,” the architectural corridor evolved in military territories and buildings as passages of speed and rapid communication. [8]  The smoothness and efficiency of the corridor can be directly contrasted with both the Palladian “matrix of connected rooms”[9] associated with enfilade arrangements of spaces (fig. 7), and the French “gallerie for slow ambulation,”[10] that developed in parallel to the emerging English obsession with the domestic corridor. Both of these alternative models to the corridor are still associated with museum and gallery architecture – the notions of speed and efficiency incongruous with the experience of viewing art. The enfilade remains the standard strategy for organizing rooms filled with art. However, what has often been lost in contemporary art institutions, is the ability to view both art and landscape together in the same space. The original French sense of the word gallerie conflated the window frame with the picture frame and allowed views beyond the interior confines of the house – into both the physical space of the landscape and the pictorial space of the art.

3_Gallery House

The Gallery House is both a contemporary response to the historic evolution of art display and a provocation for a new form of domestic space. The project weaves together spaces of everyday domestic life with idealized spaces for viewing art. It connects inside and outside, art and nature, people and objects. On one side of the central axis of the house are rooms specifically crafted for viewing different types of art, with carefully controlled light and room proportions. On the other side of the axis are individually designed rooms for living – bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, etc. The house curates the experience of both, forcing the inhabitant to constantly move back and forth between art and life, between spaces of contemplation and spaces of interaction. The Gallery House denies both the corridor and the enfilade, creating a linear sequence of one room after the next that prohibits the singular view from one end to the other. Inhabitants are forced to slow down, pay attention, and continually shift their gaze from inside to outside, and from art gallery to domestic setting.

Acting as a palette cleanser, the house refreshes, or resets the inhabitant’s mode of thinking throughout the day. Importantly, both types of space are always visually present – the warm glow of the fireplace visible from within the gallery, and vice versa; the newly acquired sculpture visible while preparing drinks for guests. The house is woven into the landscape, with a series of outdoor pools – some for swimming in, other simply acting as reflecting pools – and outdoor gardens, each extending the indoor spaces of the house out into the surrounding landscape.

The Gallery House is an instrument for seeing that recovers the term “gallerie” by claiming a new rapport between framed art and framed landscape. The Gallery House is a house without corridors – an inherently slow space where one room leads to the next with a maximum amount of friction. Most importantly, the Gallery House is a space for viewing art that embraces its messy domesticity – that revels in the uncomfortable contrast between the everyday and the extraordinary. It is a home – warm, soft, comforting – that is sharpened, challenged, and enlivened by the presence of art, by what John Berger calls “the meeting place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring.”[11]

Fig.1 Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemmonier, Salon de Madame Geoffrin.

Fig.2 Pietro Antonio Martini, The Paris Salon of 1785 .

Fig.3 Frederick Mackenzie, The national gallery when at Mr. J.J Angerstein’s house, 1824-1834.

Fig.4 Gertrude Stein’s living room

Fig.5 The Grosvenor Gallery in London

Fig. 6  Amesbury House, Wiltshire, John Webb. 1661.

Fig. 7  Palazzo Antonini, Udine, Andrea Palladio, 1556.

[1] Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Volume 3. Edited by Joseph Bristow, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” p. 170.

[2] Berger, John. 1985, “Miners.” Originally written in a letter to miners who unsuccessfully resisted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to close down mines in 1984. First published in 1989 in an exhibition catalogue – “The Paintings and Drawings of Knud and Slowei Stampe.”

[3] The National Gallery official website. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/

[4] Codell, Julie. “On the Grosvener Gallery, 1877.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web

[5] Greeks believed that each of the nine Muses was the goddess of a particular art or science and were used by poets as sources of inspiration. Homer’s Odyssey famously begins with the words “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…”.

[6] Jarzombek, Mark. Corridor Spaces, p. 748.

[7] Evans, Robin. “Figures, Doors and Passages” in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays.

[8] Jarzombek, Mark. Corridor Spaces,

[9] Evans, Robin. “Figures, Doors and Passages” in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays.

[10] Jarzombek, Mark. Corridor Spaces, p. 748.

[11] John Berger.

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