David Grandorge admires 6a’s secluded studio for photographer Juergen Teller
In specifications for their 1952 Soho House project, Alison & Peter Smithson wrote “It is our intention in this building to have the structure exposed entirely, without internal finishes wherever practicable. The contractor should aim at a high standard of basic construction as in a small warehouse.” The project was never realised, but the principles set out by the Smithsons are evident in 6a Architects’ newly completed studio for the photographer Juergen Teller.
Teller’s extraordinary photographic oeuvre is characterised by a brazen confidence, tempered by an empathetic and sensitive relationship with his subjects. It has led to the acceptance and celebration of his work in the sometimes contradictory, but often symbiotic worlds of fashion photography, photography as a practice in itself and photography as an art form.
6a’s directors, Tom Emerson and Stephanie Macdonald, are well versed in the discourses of art practice, stemming in part from their friendship and collaborations with the artist Richard Wentworth, but also from an intense curiosity about the world around them. It is a curiosity infused by a spirit of generosity and optimism. That Teller should come to them to design his studio is fortuitous, and the collaboration has resulted in a spatial and tectonic masterpiece.
The studio is located on a long and narrow plot on a hinterland street in west London, bordering the Westway. The site formerly contained a two-storey 1950s light-industrial unit, which was in a state of disrepair. It had historically been occupied by laundering facilities and was more recently used by a building contractor as an office and store.
like the forbidden ‘Zone’ in Tarkovsky’s 1979 film ‘Stalker’, this is a capricious space”
The existing fabric has been demolished, apart from selected elements that include a boundary wall on the north-western edge of the site. Against this wall lean a number of small sheds in gardens belonging to neighbouring social housing. Teller and the architects were determined that these modest structures would not be disturbed, a humane decision that has enhanced the finished architecture.
After a design process of successively refined iterations, the studio has been realised as an ensemble of three buildings and three external rooms, somewhere between yard and garden, that are intended to be the principal backdrop for Teller’s photo shoots. The buildings were initially conceived as three identical volumes, equally spaced, that were then stretched and contracted horizontally, like the elements of a lens, to address issues of rights-to-light and overlooking, and to accommodate different programmatic requirements. The concise material palette makes use of concrete in various forms: as exposed loadbearing blockwork for inner walls, and in a poured form for floors and beams that march along the length of the site and for the external walls that would fuse the new building into the residual fragments of brickwork. This is seen most graphically at the corner of the street facade.
The studio presents itself to the street in a laconic fashion. The concrete facade, board-marked to match the scale of the existing brickwork, is gently folded to soften its mass, and results in a subtle play of light in the early afternoon. It is punctuated by few openings: a charging point for an electric car and a set of double doors to the right, and above, one large high-level window that illuminates and ventilates the studio office.
On entering the building, one is able to see through the length of the site to the rear courtyard. The entrance hall is wide and tall enough to accommodate a van for loading artworks safely from a secure archive situated to the left. It is lit from above via a triple-height void that is traversed at the first floor by a steel mesh bridge that connects subsidiary spaces above. This void also marks the entrance to the office and post-production studios that are reached via a fire-protected glazed stairwell. The office is of generous and well-judged proportions and is one of the few spaces that is visually connected to the external world. Teller wanted it to have the atmosphere of an atelier for the benefit of the assistants and administrative staff who are intrinsic to the success of his creative practice. It is the most public space of the studio complex.
Continuing along the depth of the site, privacy increases. Passing through the first garden, where a relic of the light-industrial building’s concrete frame remains, one enters the main studio, a space for photo shoots, for editing images and for displaying work. The main source of daylight comes from above through north-east-facing rooflights that rest on exquisitely thin concrete beams. The filtered quality of the light gives the space a powerful otherworldly quality. At each end of it are suspended concrete volumes for storage that give compression and therefore intimacy to the space’s thresholds. These storage spaces are reached by narrow stairs with the most minimal of balustrades.
The fair-faced blockwork walls – impeccably laid, as they are throughout the project – feel soft and enveloping rather than austere. This softness is amplified when diaphanous curtains conceal the large horizontal openings at each end of the room. The space becomes more internalised, more reflective, more concentrated – a condition that is sometimes essential for Teller’s practice.
Beyond the studio, the second courtyard is an external room that, like the first, is planted with multi-stemmed deciduous trees and an assortment of small plants and climbers growing out of shingle, all specified by the wonderful Dan Pearson. Bordering the planting are the remnants of a concrete screed cut at improvised angles. Emerson cites RSR Fitter’s book ‘London’s Natural History’ (1945) as the source of this landscape strategy, but it has resulted in a space that, in diffuse light, is infused with a powerful melancholy that recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’ (1979). This emotive quality is reinforced by the concrete walls that flare outwards like the base of a cooling tower to conceal security shutters. But like the forbidden ‘Zone’ in Tarkovsky’s film, this is a capricious space. In sunshine, and filled with people, it transforms into a place of pleasure and celebration.
The final built volume in this sequence contains a kitchen on the ground floor behind which sits a room looking on to the final garden, into which lands an escape stair. This room accommodates Teller’s library. Above are situated a toplit space for yoga and a sauna, the most private of rooms in which Teller can prepare for or recover from intense photo shoots.
Addressing the project overall, there are a few more prosaic things that should be mentioned – the deftness with which surface-mounted services are arranged, the reuse of the concrete’s formwork for the covering of service trenches and floor-mounted sockets, the quality of design of vents, the recycling of rainwater and so on. 6a does not see a building’s functional aspects as a problem, but as further opportunities to design and give delight to the user.
Some tectonic consequences are dealt with idiosyncratically: for instance, concrete beams are allowed to puncture a blockwork wall where least expected. Imperfect finishes are accepted and sometimes celebrated.
Yet rigour, order and rhythm are also evident. It is rare that these qualities are combined, but they have been enabled by Teller’s openness and encouragement and his insistence that 6a retained its creative autonomy in the manner that he expects from his clients. I am sure that this masterfully controlled ensemble will serve him well.