Last month the Hayward Gallery, the Southbank Centre’s Brutalist gem of a contemporary arts space, reopened after a two-year refurbishment project to repair the original 1968 rooflights. Designed to allow natural light into the galleries, they did more than that, letting in water to such an extent that a false ceiling had to be installed almost immediately after the gallery first opened to the public.
As the Hayward celebrates its 50th birthday, Jo Caird talks to Ralph Rugoff, its director since 2006, about the refurbishment project, how attitudes towards the building have changed, and why he opted to reopen the space with a retrospective by German photographer Andreas Gursky.
How will the refurbishment of the gallery affect the visitor experience?
The upper galleries are now the best looking galleries in London. By raising the ceiling height and installing a stunning series of 66 rooflights, the galleries have an amazingly luminous and voluminous feel to them.
What’s the benefit of having natural light in the gallery?
Besides the fact that it’s the best spectrum of light for looking closely at works that deal with colour, natural light is constantly changing and this offers a huge benefit in the way it keeps our eyes engaged and alert. Completely consistent lighting, on the other hand, sends a signal of sameness to the brain that can be profoundly dulling.
What does the reopening of the gallery mean to the Southbank Centre as a whole?
The Hayward is the visual arts hub of the Southbank Centre, so it will mean that our commitment to showing world-class visual art is back online here. Its reopening is also the first step in the return of the 1968 wing, as the QEH and Purcell room will reopen a couple of months later.
How has public opinion about the building changed over the 50 years since it opened?
I think public opinion has shifted quite profoundly, not only about the Hayward but about brutalist architecture in general. In its early years the Hayward faced a steady stream of detractors who deplored its design. But that has changed. And throughout its history, the building has been generally loved by architects and artists, with figures like Rem Koolhaas, Amanda Levete and the late Zaha Hadid listing it among their favourite gallery buildings.
How do you ensure that a building designed in the 1960s is still fit for purpose for visitors today?
By paying lots of attention to all the small details that need looking after and by completely replacing all the mechanical, electrical and climate control systems from 1968.
Why was Andreas Gursky chosen as the first exhibition following the reopening?
We wanted to reopen with a show by an artist who has changed his medium, much in the same way as the design of the Hayward really set a new direction for gallery architecture which today is being copied quite widely. Gursky is a hugely influential artist and a pioneering innovator whose work explores changing aspects of our contemporary landscape in different areas around the world.
Words Jo Caird