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BUILDING REVIEW

Jamie Fobert’s subterranean gallery at Tate St Ives unveiled

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The 500m² gallery will finally open on 14 October, after 12 years, two competitions and a change of site

’The main material is light,’ says Jamie Fobert, standing in the new five metre high gallery space he has designed, carved out of bedrock and lit by six enormous skylights – each up to four metres in depth. These are expressed outside on the roof as granite-faced lightboxes, the scale of small cabins, in a roofscape that is open to the public and planted with native species from nearby cliffs. The gallery is the main element of the extension Fobert has designed to Tate St Ives’ original 1993 building by Evans and Shalev and which doubles the gallery space.

Inside the new gallery, the skylights sit above a series of 1.5 metre deep concrete beams which span 16.5 metres – each engineered by structural engineer Price & Myers to take up to 5kN/m² or 2.8 tonne point loads – able to hang several Richard Serras (or indeed elephants, as seen in an early sketch by Price & Myers) – and which enable a vast 500m² column-free space. 

201709 tate st ives project photo(c) st ives tv  (5) copy

201709 tate st ives project photo(c) st ives tv (5) copy

Source: St Ives TV

Unusually, the skylights face south, their depth mitigating any direct sunlight falling into the gallery or indeed allowing any ’hot-spots’ of light on the gallery walls themselves, keeping lux levels compliant with international museum standards – in a clever design, on which Max Fordham worked as M&E engineer. 

’While perfect for artists’ studios, the use of only north light in gallery spaces designed in the 20th century was a big mistake: it’s too cold,’ says Fobert, who instead wanted to capture the rich warm light of St Ives in the new gallery – since the town’s light was the main reason it became famous as an artists’ colony in the first place. 

Tate St Ives interior 2

Tate St Ives interior 2

Source: Dennis Gilbert

The result is a gallery space that has a pacific, almost landscape quality to it – lofty, yet in its sheer width providing an almost horizon-type sense of space in which to show art. Fobert’s inspirations were Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion in the Biennale Gardens in Venice and Arne Jacobsen’s St Catherine’s College Hall in Oxford. The gallery is also designed to be sub-divided easily into up to six or more smaller galleries. Finishes are classic with hanging walls of white plasterboard, sandwiched between the grey concrete beams and soffit, and a ground-concrete floor, a more forgiving surface than if it was power-floated, designed for heavy use: already the inaugural installation of Rebecca Warren sculptures has necessitated drilling into it. 

Tate st ives west sectional elevation (c)jamie fobert architects

Tate st ives west sectional elevation (c)jamie fobert architects

Source: Jamie Fobert Architects

West sectional elevation

Jamie Fobert Architects won the original 2005 competition to expand the gallery, necessitated by annual visitor figures that at 250,000 were three times what the gallery had been designed for. A ‘re-scoping’ exercise in 2008 however, saw the original above-ground design abandoned. It had met with local opposition due to loss of views and parking spaces, and a sense that Tate St Ives was getting too big for its boots, losing touch with the town and imposing an extension on it. The site was shifted to take advantage of the proposed redevelopment by Penwith Housing Association (PHA) of the Meadow Flats site to the west of the gallery. In a complicated deal, Cornwall Council agreed to support the housing redevelopment in partnership with PHA, while financing the acquisition of part of the Meadow Flats site for the gallery. This deal saw the three small terraces of one-bedroom sheltered housing replaced by a single four-storey block of 26 units facing the sea, designed by local practice Poynton Bradbury Wynter Cole Architects. It then freeed up a site for the new extension which now could link to the existing museum through a four-metre strip of land, enabling a direct connection to the existing sequence of galleries.

L3 plan hairline no hatch copy

L3 plan hairline no hatch copy

Source: Jamie Fobert Architects

Level 3 plan

In 2012, Fobert’s Shoreditch-based practice won the commission again, in a competition which saw 6a Architects, DSDHA, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, AL_A and Tony Fretton Architects submit designs. This time around though, taking into account local opposition, the design was primarily subterranean. In the subsequent process of construction, further delays occurred when during excavation a hard bedrock of elvan was discovered, which because of the proximity to the new block of sheltered housing, could not be blasted out. Costs rose from £12 to £20 million.

The most prominent above-ground element of the new design now is a three-storey ’pavilion’ containing a loading bay which trucks can directly back into at its highest level. This is connected down by a goods lift, the same size as that at Tate Britain, firstly to a collection care studio and then down to a lobby leading to the new gallery. This pavilion is clad with hand-glazed blue-green tiles, which in certain light pick up or even blend with the colours of the adjacent sea. 

Tate St Ives exterior 3

Tate St Ives exterior 3

Source: Dennis Gilbert

The original Evans and Shalev gallery has itself been augmented through the addition of two new education rooms, designed by the original architect. These occupy what was previously a courtyard space and consist of the hemi-spherical domed Clore ’sky-studio’ opening out onto a terrace, and below it a columned rectangular space, with natural light washing down its walls from ley-lights, in form like an inverted atrium. In toto, the new gallery provides a rich but calm counterpoint to the more idiosyncratic sequence of the original gallery spaces, despite a massive shift in scale, enabling the gallery to show international contemporary exhibitions alongside a more permanent display of modern art and its connection to St Ives.

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