Stirling Prize-winning architects Witherford Watson Mann have designed the new exhibition curated by British photographer Martin Parr, which opens at the Barbican on 16 March. ‘Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers’ showcases 23 international photographers from 1930 to the present day recording the social, cultural and political identity of the UK through the camera lens. The exhibition includes works by some of the most prominent photographers of the 20th and 21st century, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Candida Höfer, Shinro Ohtake and Edith Tudor-Hart.
Witherford Watson Mann’s design responds to the large number of individual photographers on display, the strictly chronological organisation of the work, the repetitive spatial structure of the gallery, and the origin of many of the works in picture periodicals and photo books by imagining the space like a library.
Laid out over two floors the gallery rooms are given focus by a 35metre long central hall. The hall houses a generous reading room that runs the full length and height of the gallery space, showcasing an extensive photo book selection, which brings together an array of rare, new and out-of-print publications by the exhibited photographers. Along the walls are bookshelves and glazed vitrines; generous seating encourages the visitor to pause, reflect or interact. Read the books, absorb the works and share thoughts with others.
Four additional gallery rooms have been created at the lower level. To maintain a sense of intimacy the scale and lighting of the individual galleries has been modified. These carefully designed spaces give the exhibition the structure and atmosphere of a library, connecting the diverse cultural backgrounds of the 23 photographers shown. All works are presented in chronological order.
William Mann of Witherford Watson Mann architects said “Although the exhibition design is an ephemeral realisation, it is also an unusually deep-rooted one. Curiously, after we had completed the design, we discovered that our long central reading room occupies the exact location of the tall vertical void down to foyer level, that was filled in in 2003.”
Alona Pardo, Curator, Barbican, said: “Witherford Watson Mann’s bold and elegant design has transformed the gallery environment, introducing a classical architectural language into the Brutalist fabric of the building whilst also creating a playful space that encourages visitors to engage in a meaningful way with the medium of the photobook by mimicking the ambience of a library. The library space enhances the natural volumes of the gallery and the 4 galleries on the lower floor are intimate spaces carefully designed with the scale of the works in mind.”
The Barbican exhibition is part of a range of gallery spaces Witherford Watson Mann is currently working on, including the design for the Curve Gallery space at the Barbican and the John James Audubon gallery at the New York Historical Society Museum. In 2015 the practice designed the Gilbert and Ildiko Drawings Gallery at the Courtauld Institute of Art – The Courtauld’s first dedicated space for the display of drawings. House of Illustration Kings Cross-opened to the public in 2014 and the extended Whitechapel Gallery in 2009.
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