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Sweco UK

The art of complex construction: Gilbert & George Centre gallery in London


An iconic building celebrating an iconic art duo opened on 1 April, designed by our friends at SIRS Architects in collaboration with Gilbert & George themselves, is now gracing London’s east end with 280sq m of exhibition space that embodies the pair’s ‘art for all’ ethos.

Photo by Yu Yigang – © Gilbert & George

As London’s newest ‘masterpiece of the built environment’, the new free museum provides a permanent venue for Gilbert & Georges’ work – in a former brewery off Brick Lane and in the neighbourhood the artists have lived in since 1968.

Sweco technical director, John Graham provides his perspectives on what was a complex work of art in its own right when it came to the structural engineering involved in this fascinating repurposing project…

“The structural works at 5A Heneage Street involved a relatively complex construction sequence in a challenging, confined site. The project involved the construction of a basement under the full footprint of an 1820’s two storey brick warehouse building that was originally a brewery. The basement excavation in turn was approximately 4.75m deep and necessitated underpinning the party walls to avoid undermining the fourteen adjacent properties that surround the site.

Prior to commencement of the works it was necessary to install vibration and movement monitoring to make sure that the basement excavation and construction would not have any adverse effects on the adjoining properties.”

Services provided by Sweco

  • Arranged geotechnical site investigation
  • Arranged investigation of existing structure and carried out an assessment of the existing structure identifying areas where remedial work and strengthening would be required.
  • Carried out structural design and waterproofing strategy for the basement and lift pit.
  • Structural design of new ground and 1st floor exhibition spaces.
  • Produced monitoring specification and arranged surveys and monitoring scope.

John continues: “The overall construction approach proposed by the Westgreen and Basement Force involved a top-down methodology with mini-piles used to support the ground floor slab until the basement slab and walls could be completed beneath the ground floor slab. This approach allowed construction work to proceed both above and below ground level simultaneously.

The existing brick walls and timber trussed roof of the brewery structure were temporarily supported during the construction works and strengthened with an internal steel frame that provided lateral support to the walls with lateral restraints also installed at roof level to tie the walls to the timber trusses improving stability.

The basement was designed to be waterproof in accordance with type B and C protection to BS 8102 and a rigid insulation was used beneath the basement slab and between the underpinning and reinforced concrete liner wall to completely envelope the reinforced concrete basement structure.”

Exterior and interior photos by Prudence Cuming © The Gilbert & George Centre

This was a challenging project with a complex structural engineering scheme, involving 37 party wall awards, 59 underpins, 13 mini-piles and a top down construction methodology on a constraint site. Albeit Sweco wasn’t able to undertake site inspections during the pandemic, technical director John Graham was available to review site photos and environmental monitoring remotely as well as provide swift responses to contractor queries, ensuring the team on the ground was able to progress works without delays.

Manuel Irsara Co-Founder of SIRS Architects

Setting the scene: More about the Gilbert & George Centre, from Artnet.com

The London- and Vienna-based firm SIRS Architects helmed the design and restoration of the site. Visitors entering through Heneage Street will first meet the green, hand-forged wrought iron gate the duo designed before setting foot in a courtyard punctuated by a Himalayan magnolia with fuchsia purple blooms is planted.