Tate revival: Tate Britain’s elegant extension and modernization increases gallery space by a third and makes it possible to see works previously stored away in vaults – related article: Architect – Brief Article
As a building, the Tate Gallery on Millbank has not been much admired, ‘an unfortunate choice’, observed Nikolaus Pevsner of its nineteenth-century architect, Sidney Smith. ‘He used the accepted Late Victorian grand manner but neither with discretion nor with originality.’ (1) In 1957 when Pevsner was writing, the style was not one, in any case, that commanded admiration. His views were echoed by fellow Modernists, but also by much more recent critics. Deyan Sudjic, for instance, has remarked that the building ‘fails to rise to the challenge of its site and symbolic significance.’ (2)
In March 2002, after a long gestation, the gallery was split into two. British art from 1500 to the present day stayed at Millbank in the renamed Tate Britain; international modern and contemporary collections were transferred to Tate Modern on Bankside, a former power station converted by Herzog & de Meuron. Greatly acclaimed, this monument at the south end of the Foster bridge has great public presence (unlike its counterpart facing the Thames with Smith’s oddly proportioned and tentative Corinthian portico). But its inert interior with regimented galleries, incomprehensible circulation and some dismal lighting, is dispiriting.
Exactly the reverse is true of Tate Britain’s interior. Order, grand airy galleries, changing volumes and quantities of natural light together create an infinitely more agreeable experience. This is particularly so since completion of new galleries and a new entrance by John Miller & Partners. The expansion, opening the Tate up to the west, aerates and discreetly modernizes the place — adding greatly to its pleasure and civilization. Not least, it makes it possible to exhibit works from the reserve collections, hitherto stored away in vaults.
Expansion by ad hoc stages has been typical of the Tate’s history. Opened in 1897, it was designed by Smith to house the art collection of Sir Henry Tate, a nineteenth-century sugar magnate, and built on the site of the Millbank Penitentiary. Smith was followed in the early part of the twentieth century by W. H. Romaine Walker who designed galleries for the Dutch art dealer, Joseph Duveen, and, later, his son; and subsequently in 1937 by the American classicist, John Russell Pope, responsible with Walker for the Duveen sculpture galleries which mark the central axis running north from Smith’s entrance rotunda through a domed octagon. The Tate’s status as a national gallery, as well as its neglect of modern continental art at this point, probably explained the choice of architect. (Pope went on to design his great classical essay, the American National Gallery of Art in Washington.)
Up until now, modern architecture has not served the Tate particularly well, represented as it is by Liewellyn Davies, Weeks, Forestier-Walker and Bar’s worthy but dull north-east extension, added in 1979, and by James Stirling’s self-indulgent wing of 1987, 50 unsympathetic to the Turner paintings.
John Miller & Partners’ architectural rigour and clarity has been seen most recently in the reorganization and modernization of the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. This practice seems to be entirely without tiresome vanity for here, as there, it has extrapolated from the existing scale and order to create volumes that, where necessary, fit in so unobtrusively as to be scarcely recognizable as interlopers. This is not to say they are not modern spaces; they are careful abstractions of the originals.
So seamless are the links between new and old, so discreet and austere the insertions, that it is difficult to appreciate how large the scheme is, increasing the Tate’s space by a third. Extending over two levels of the northwest quadrant of the site, it includes refurbishment of five galleries on the upper floor and design of nine new galleries (including the Linbury Galleries for temporary exhibitions on the ground floor), using space previously taken up by a courtyard. Existing galleries have been cleaned up and air conditioned. The coving and skylighting of these volumes, their materials and colours, find echoes in design of the new rooms on the upper floor; only the suppression of skirtings and lack of ornamentation in the latter give the game away. On the lower level, ceilings of the Linbury Galleries are shallow vaults with uplighters shedding reflected light. Expanding horizontally, these are big unadorned volumes with plenty of hanging space and expanses of plain wood floors.
The fulcrum of the Miller scheme is the handsome new entrance hall reached from the new Manton entrance on Atterbury Street. Designed to catch visitors coming on foot from Pimlico tube, the entrance relieves crowding at the main doors, caters for disabled visitors, school parties and other group visits, and makes flexible opening hours possible. It is also a hub from which to reach all parts of the museum.
The hall is spacious, paved with pale limestone and set with black columns; and is connected to the restaurant and cafe to the south by a ramp and shallow flight of stairs. As elsewhere, detailing is immaculate. To the north are the Linbury Galleries. Standing at the reception desk which stretches across the back (east) wall, you have long views into the light-filled galleries in one direction, through glass doors to the outside (and elegant landscaping by Allies & Morrison) in another, and in another into the glass fronted shop to the left of the entrance.
The horizontal expands vertically with procession into a luminous lofty stairwell faced with stone and roofed with etched glass, where a grand flight of stone stairs takes you to the upper floor. Throughout this scheme the links, uncramped and generously proportioned, between the various parts suggest leisurely procession, just as Pope’s central aisle does. Stateliness belongs here, and Miller’s staircase reflecting the fact is a great delight.
1 London I: The Cities of London and Westminster by Nikolaus Pevsner, Published by Penguin Books, revised by Bridget Cherry.
2 ‘Piu Spazio per la Tate’, Deyan Sudjic, Domus, March 2002, p98.
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