The Time Machine at the Saatchi Gallery

Looking at what is now the unusual building that the Saatchi gallery is housed in, you may have asked yourselfquestions like: “What was this building originallybuilt for?”, “What is the story behind this grand and majestic building?”, “Who were the inhabitants of this palace?” …

Let’s start from the beginning…

The building was erected in the beginning of the 19th century when Frederick Duke of York ordered the architect John Sander to design an asylum for the children of soldiers’ widows to provide a place for them to live. Sander was a pupil of Sir John Soane, an architect who has been known for his Neo-Classical style. The foundation stone being laid on the 19th June 1801 bore the inscription:

“This stone was laid by Frederick, Duke of York, Field Marshal of England in the 41st year of Majesty’s region”.

The building was commissioned and owned by the English Monarchy, in honour of this the Royal Coat of arms was sculpted into the arch of the entrance; with the lion and unicorn and the motto “Dieu et mon Droit ” (French for ‘God and my right’).

There is a very dignified and elegant architectural style about the building. The main entrance of the Neo-Classic fabric has been dignified by the four Doric columns sitting on Corinthian bases. The main building, the current Saatchi Gallery, has been followed by two wings: the Northern one in which there are a couple of restaurants such as the Mess Gallery and the Southern one that is now closed to the public. The curved garden walls which stretch out on the south and north side have archways and above the two entrances there are two sculptures which represent flags and trophies. The material used was mainly stock brick but there are white decorative elements, such as the Neo-Classic portico and the windows in Roman style of stone which reveal the Neo-Classic style used at the beginning of the 19th century by the whole of Europe.

The founder ordered to build the building for the children of soldiers’ widows a place to live. But with the Duke of York placing it so close to the Hospital where the fathers of the children were recovered, the Duke called the building the Royal Military Asylum. The pupils, boys and girls, who were living and studying there did not have any pressure to join the Army, nevertheless it is true to say that for many years the majority of boys on leaving did join the corps and regiments which comprised the British Army. What kind of school was the Military Asylum? Exactly what did the pupils have to study? Among the traditional matters such as English, arithmetic, and geography, the pupils also had to take music lessons and learn how to play an instrument such as a drum and bugle. The band of the school sometimes played in ceremonial parades such as local fetes and concerts outside the school. The boys had to learn the trade of shoemaker and tailoring, whilst girls had to learn knitting and needling, additionally the girls were constantly employed in household works. Another main task for the Dukies, as was the nickname for the children in the school, was to stay fit by practicing drill exercises. The courtyard in front of the main entrance of the Saatchi Gallery was used as a practise field. So instead of children playing on the grass like other boys, the Dukies, had to do drills for exercise and stand to attention waiting for instructions from the sergeant and marching like regular soldiers. They looked like an army with obedience to its commander.

As any pupil who goes to English schools nowadays the Dukies also had to wear a uniform where the boys wore red jackets with blue cuffs, blue braches and stockings with black leather caps; the girls uniform consisted of red gowns with blue petticoats, aprons and a straw bonnet.

In 1909 the school was discontinued and the building came under control military and the Ministry of Defence, the Duke of York’s Royal Military School was renamed the Duke of York’s Barracks. The pupils had to move to other schools: the girls moved to Southampton and the boys to Dover.

During the period in which the current Saatchi Gallery was military barracks we do not have many fonts about the life inside the inaccessible area. Here below see a few articles around the military period.

At the end of  the 20th century, the estate has been sold to Cadogan Estate and in a few years opened the inaccessible barrack to London citizens. The building was refurbished by architects and the life inside started to be more cheerful and colourful with fashion, antiques and private events during these years. The swinging 60’s started and the area next to Sloan Square, all King’s Road was animated by the new generation of artists, a socially mixed and rather bohemian society. By the end of the 20th the area was again an enclave of the rich and fashionable, starting from the cutting edge of woman’s fashion, the shop Bazar, to Mary Quant’s boutique. The area of Chelsea started to be known as the Mecca for women and fashion designers. In this way also the Duke of York Headquarter opened its doors to that generation. Fashion awards and events took place in the galleries of the Duke of York’s for all the ’80 and ’90. Models and important fashion designers, such as Mary Quaint and Vivienne Westwood, were invited to take part to events and fashion weeks. The Duke of York building was now a point of meeting for the fashion life and also for antiques fairs.

In the 21st century Cadogan Estates commissioned Paul Davis and Partners (PDP) to convert the building into offices. Eventually, at a certain point, when the works had started already, the Saatchi Gallery, which at that time was based in the County Hall, leased the building and began working with AHMM to redesign the office project to suit the gallery. The final finishing of the building was done by the collaboration of Paul Davis and Partners and AHMM. At last the original sash windows were closed to the natural light to give more control on the inside light.  The floor for the circulation areas was made out of grey lightly textured limestone, whilst the gallery floors were made of wide timber floor planks of Douglas fir, supplied by Dinesen Company. Everything had to be subservient to the art itself. The main idea behind the architects’ scheme was integrating the original building with contemporary elements and materials. The terrazzo post war staircase in stone of Yorkshire was fixed and maintained; whilst the glass, concrete and steel inserts of the new circulation core containing staircases and lift shafts open the gallery to the contemporary space experience. To the main building, or the Saatchi Gallery, there has been added a new block. The bridge between those two is a corridor whose glass walls open the whole body to the outside. The outside environment has been seen from inside the building and sometimes it has been reflected onto the glass surfaces, in this way the building becomes a lens to look through and in.

On October 9, 2008 the gallery in the Duke of York’s HQ opened its doors to the public with a Chinese exhibition, The Revolution Continues: New Art From China.


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