Caruso St John’s interventions at Tate Britain are a masterpiece of architectural ambiguity, writes Jay Merrick. Photography by Hélène Binet
In the 21st century, we consume art in highly commodified forms, and the most successful commodifications take place in ever more remarkable architectural containers which brand or imprint the experience of the art itself as part of Iconic Existence plc. Too often, artworks - apparently central to the gallery experience, but subservient to the artifice of visitor-production - become palimpsests, or a kind of faux provocative décor for styled engagements with art.
At the Centre Pompidou, would we rather be in the Place Georges Pompidou, looking up at the building? And in the multiple hearts of darkness of Jean Nouvel’s Musée du Quai Branly, shall we study the ethnographic exhibits, or recall the night river scenes in Apocalypse Now? The compellingly luscious sunset of Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003 made the idea of looking at art, per se, evaporate. In the dense ochre light of the fever-dream in that vast and effectively invisible architectural space, past and future vanished, and the present became a profoundly mysterious plasma.
Caruso St John’s transformation of Tate Britain’s three-level Millbank entrance sequence - reception, undercroft elements and Rotunda - is not mysterious. The interventions, extrapolated or precisely re-exposed from precedents, serve the art experience and convey a sense of the present that is refreshing, but complicated. The most intriguing aspect of their scheme concerns its sense of the future, and I’ll return to that.
The overriding impression is of a series of highly accomplished manipulations of space, programme and atmosphere; although these are individually very distinctive, the way the historic architecture has been retailored in this part of the Tate ensemble manages to suggest both the precise and the fugitive. We are in the realm of TS Eliot’s lines in Burnt Norton:
‘And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance…’
Peter St John suggests that the changes at the Tate are ‘radical’, but they’re not quite that. The new interventions are architecturally logical, and fastidiously subtle; the practice’s manipulation of the historic Grade II*-listed fabric and the new spatial organisation has given this part of Tate Britain a more relaxed gravitas. The subtle new paint colours, terrazzo flooring and joinery are based on the original palette of materials specified by Sidney.
The reconfiguration of the Millbank entrance segment has thoroughly decompressed it: we see the internal features of the Rotunda, and the first-floor River Room, for the first time in decades; there are outlooks from the new Djanogly Café in the undercroft. This must have beneficial effects on visitor numbers: Tate Britain currently receives 1.4 million visitors a year - about the same as Chester Zoo, and around a quarter of Tate Modern’s visitors.
The scheme carries auras of time in its edges, its surfaces, its graphic qualities, its craft and its materiality; yet there is no sense of either card-carrying relativist postmodernity, or suavely exquisite historical pastiche. The central Rotunda’s staircase, spiralling down into its remodelled undercroft, might suggest Art Deco, but the black and white scallop-patterned marble of this delightful helix ultimately evades strict labelling.
The furniture in the Members’ Area on the Rotunda’s balcony level includes Lutyens’ Napoleon chairs, leather banquettes and oak desks in the manner of Gordon Russell - objectified points in architectural time presented rather like exhibits in a museum; we, too, become momentary exhibits when we sit in them. Yet this scene feels more like a demonstration of architectural wit than decadent retroism.
History can be irritating. The architecture of Tate Britain since Smith’s original, and relatively unremarkable, eight-room building in 1897 has been shunted around and added to. The results have seemed like an expedient collage: additions to the original building in 1910; more galleries, designed by WH Romaine-Walker and Charles Holden in 1926; the classically inspired central sculpture galleries in 1937 by John Russell Pope; the north-west extension by no less than four architects in 1979; the sardonic portentousness of Stirling’s Clore Gallery in 1987; >> and, in 2001, John Miller’s ten-gallery makeover in the Manton Street flank.
The sense of irritation - great art tainted by the depressing effects of some dreadful spaces - persisted. The spatial qualities and fractured programme dominated the experience of the art by default: there was no sense of coherent process through the galleries; one bumbled haphazardly through the mostly poorly lit, stuffy spaces enclosed by architectural accretions whose place in time seemed vague. The assembled histories of the buildings owed more to Dr Frankenstein than to the idea of effective engagements with art.
But it was not the ad hoc jumble of architectural styles and spaces that mattered at Tate Britain, so much as the lack of a strong sense of promenade. Consider the galleries at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark: they are individually very different, spatially and materially, but there is a clear route through them, which intensifies the experience of the artworks. This intensification was certainly the outcome when Caruso St John refurbished and technically upgraded the 20 outer galleries, and clarified the circulation through them in 2011-12.
Caruso St John’s reinvention of the Millbank entrance, so apparently vivid and lucent in many respects, offers a different kind of intensity. There is a fascinating ambiguity at play in their strategies and finer details. Very oddly, despite the homages to architectural history, there is only a faint sense of the memorial or the sentimental in the interventions.
Much stronger is the crystallised, almost Victorian sense of an ordained future in these interventions: they feel absolutely permanent; the architectural dance has introduced a modernity that has the character and atmosphere of a still point in history. It is a character that would not be welcome in the virtual boardrooms of Iconic plc, and it would be puzzling to those who prefer to experience art as part of the acting out of a lifestyle narrative. Tate Britain’s remodelled Millbank entrance sequence is more suitable for counter-cultural revolutionaries who want to encounter art deliberately, rather than with glancing irony among thousands of other glancing ironists.
Jay Merrick is architecture critic at the Independent