When the Whitechapel Gallery’s minimalist aesthetic called for a discreet approach to services, Scomac put on its creative head. Tracy Edwards went behind the scenes before the official reopening

Thinking of nurturing your artistic side in one of London’s fine galleries? You could head down to Trafalgar Square’s National Gallery and nod approvingly at a few classic Turners. Or elbow your way through reams of tourists on the bustling South Bank for something a little more contemporary.

For the more adventurous of spirit, however, the City’s East End presents another option: a turn-of-the-century hidden gem, its art nouveau facade a nod to the ground-breaking works that lie within.

Making my way down the grimy, rundown length of Whitechapel High Street, past shabby market stalls selling everything from bruised bananas to odd shoes, I begin to think that the lead I was offered on this prestigious art-house revamp was nothing more than a cruel joke. And then suddenly, there it is, landlocked incongruously between kebab shops and phone-unlocking stores: the Whitechapel Gallery.

Apart from its boarded-up front entrance, the listed facade betrays little of the £13.5 million expansion going on within. David Scott, a director at m&e contractor Scomac Services, arrives on cue to guide me inside. We are met with indignant glares from a roundtable of gallery personnel.

“What are they doing coming through here?” mouths a bizarrely dressed woman to her equally indignant beard-stroking colleague. As I later discover, construction workers are not to use the front entrance. Whether this is because they ruin the overall gallery aesthetic, or because it emphasises to the public that the project is already running three months late is never revealed.

The Whitechapel is set to be reborn through its expansion into an adjacent late-Victorian library, which will double its gallery space. The project began 18 months ago, and the grand reopening finally took place on 5 April. The timescale was a mere drop in the ocean when you consider that the original gallery was founded back in 1901.

Famously, it was selected to exhibit Picasso’s cubist depiction of the Guernica bombing. Organised back in 1939 to raise awareness of the Spanish Civil War, the exhibition had a suggested entry price of a pair of boots, which would be sent to the Republicans in Spain. To celebrate this year’s reopening, a taspestry of the original will be exhibited. There is no sign of the masterpiece at this stage, but as we explore I keep a wary eye on my site boots all the same.

The galleries are mostly empty, but it only takes a slight leap of the imagination to envisage these vast contemporary spaces brought to life by the vivid brush strokes of international artists such as Mark Rothko, as well as the UK’s creative elite, including Lucien Freud and Gilbert and George.

The new complex, which includes a cafe and brasserie, is 26 metres wide and 35 metres deep. Newly created education spaces at the top of the former library double its previous two-storey height.

There is hope that the expansion project will encourage further regeneration in Whitechapel, a sadly deprived area with undeniable social and economic problems. In the current climate, this is perhaps questionable, but there is no doubt that the public project offers hope. Around 50% of the original £10m budget was funded by Lottery money. Costs have risen significantly due to structural issues faced by main contractor Wallis, including an obligation to preserve original library roofing. A particularly strong refusal to compromise by architects Robbrecht en Daem and Witherford Watson Mann did not help matters.

Creating a blank canvas

Scomac was also subject to the architects’ unwavering demands on the £1.6m m&e project. To ensure the focus rests on the art exhibits, the interior had to be unobtrusive. This minimalist approach proved a big challenge for the m&e teams. In short, the illusion is that of a building with very few services at all – a tenet which even applies when gazing out of the windows.

“At one point, the architect could see about 50 mm of ductwork sticking up behind part of the roof when he looked through the window. So instead of the square duct we had chosen, we had to change it to smaller cylindrical transition duct,” says mechanical project manager Steve Roots.

Electrical project manager Doug Kenneth laughs. “At the end of the day, the ducting is an artwork in itself now, but you don’t even see any of it,” he says.

This was a disappointing outcome to say the least. The mental image of art critics unwittingly praising the new ‘brutalist’ installation is a fine one.

Concealing services was even more important within gallery spaces. Unfortunately for Scomac, the design solution demanded more than power points hidden in floor boxes.

Remotely located plant rooms were considered for former library rooms where there was no basement. However, situating plant within close proximity of individual spaces was deemed a neater, less obtrusive option. The resulting series of implausibly shallow, narrow cupboards located within wall spaces are an m&e team’s nightmare.

“The close, controlled spaces are very tight, so we opted for Swagen’s vertical air-handling units,” admits Roots. “It was still a headache getting everything within the spaces and hidden.”

According to architect William Mann, the unobtrusive approach still had frustrating limits. “We opted for underfloor heating within spaces on the first floor, but the approach wasn’t possible throughout so we had to settle for trench heaters in other areas,” he explains.

We opted for FP600 cable for the fire safety system because we couldn’t tear any of the timber structure apart. We had this big Victorian building into which we were bringing 21st-century services kicking and screaming

Downstairs in one of the original plant rooms, space is still an issue. Access is through small holes, and most units had to be delivered flat-pack – an expensive option. The team solved some of the space issues by using Keston’s compact bespoke boilers.

“It would have been difficult even if we’d had the whole basement to work with, but they put toilets down here as well,” says Scott.

They may have been challenged, but the m&e team took an active involvement from the design stage. “We had to bring in lots of samples and mock-ups, and it took a long time – up to 18 weeks,” says Roots.

Precious things

When you’re dealing with artwork that can be worth more than the building housing it, security is a top priority. Scomac has installed a grade 3 alarm system within the gallery – a precaution usually reserved for banks.

Top-quality fire protection is also crucial. Coopers automatic fire curtains cover all windows and lift doors – a hefty measure, according to Kenneth.

Scomac opted for Apollo’s EMS wireless system within the original gallery spaces, but was not permitted to open the fabric of the grade II-listed library.

“We had to integrate the wireless system into the former library’s hard-wired one. It was complex,” says Scott, shaking his head.

“We opted for FP600 cable for the fire safety system. MICC would have been awkward on this project because we couldn’t tear any of the timber structure apart. We had this big Victorian building into which we were bringing 21st-century services – kicking and screaming,” he adds.

Exhibition rooms are regulated by close-control humidifiers, and humidity levels are monitored via active sensors, with results read every other hour by staff members.

Lighting is another fundamental consideration, as high lux levels can fade or otherwise damage painted works.

Architects and gallery officials specified Concord’s three-circuit recessed mounted tracks, along with dimmable fluorescents for a flexible approach to light levels.

All four galleries are top-lit, following extensive daylight studies by consultant Max Fordham to ensure that levels did not surpass the recommended maximum for gallery spaces, as directed by BS 5454. Ceiling louvres operate via daylight sensors.

As many pigments and dyes absorb ultraviolet light and gradually change colour, window glazing also features UV filters.

Not all displays require this level of tender loving care, as the gallery has more on offer than pricey paintings. Kenneth has been transfixed by the cinematic presentations.

“I shouldn’t say this because my boss is here,” he laughs, “but I walked past the theatre and they were showing these short films of puppies getting beaten. It’s enough to give you nightmares. And another time there was one showing brain surgery.”

“Well, it looks like you’ve seen the whole season,” quips Scomac’s Scott. Kenneth barely notices the remark: he is stirred to the point of distraction. “It was really surreal. What was the meaning of it?”

Lamentably, the spell is broken and he glances around self-consciously. “But then, what do I know about these things,” he sighs. “After all, I’m only an electrician.”

Originally published in EMC May 09 issue as: Down to a fine art