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Don’t judge a book by its cover by Elinor Huggett

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Buildings are like books: elegant exteriors can be deceiving. The most beautiful building could be a sensory nightmare, impossible to use and illness inducing. And while a bad novel might set you back ten pounds and steal a few valuable hours, an uncomfortable building will be far, far more costly. Conversely, a good building will shelter, delight, inspire and comfort its occupants for many, many years.

We spend the majority of our lives in buildings, and occupation of a building involves employment of all of our senses. Therefore, for a building to be considered successful, its occupants should be close to fully satisfied in all of their senses. Fundamentally, great architecture should facilitate the activities of its users without their noticing: allowing occupants to feel at ease in their surroundings is one of the vital elements of the architect’s craft.

Recently, for example, when wandering the refurbished south east quadrant of the Tate Britain Museum, I felt able to enjoy the fine artwork that the building was designed to showcase, without feeling lost, flustered, cold, distracted, sleepy, dazzled, frazzled, or…, well, you get the picture. This is because in addition to the visual ‘wow’ factor, which the museum has in abundance, it is also functional: I was able to find my way around it, to use it, and I felt physically comfortable. This base level of comfort and calm allowed my spirits to be lifted by the larger scale architectural design, as well of course as by the art itself.

Renovating a building commanding such prestige, quality and grandeur as the Tate Britain requires subtlety and skill above and beyond that required in the design of a new building. The works there have succeeded in maintaining the building’s historic integrity, and in fact enhancing its original design excellence, whilst adapting it to the needs of the 21st century. I’m lucky enough to have discussed the building with some of its designers, and so I understand perhaps more than most the difficulty of this - which is perhaps one of the reasons I think so highly of the project.

Anyway, back to my impressions of the building. The architect’s choice to re-use an existing motif, still visible in an original window in the entrance hall, in the design of the tiling and the stairs in the re-established Rotunda space produces a subtle coherence which ties the new and the old together. This is complemented by the simple palette of materials: cool marble works with the plentiful natural light to create a sensation of a lofty, almost cathedral like space. The resulting peaceful atmosphere forms an ideal environment in which to contemplate, allowing my intellectual curiosities to be invigorated as I am freed from the surrounding mayhem of London.

Once inside the galleries, I feel neither frazzled nor dazzled, despite the prevalence of natural light. Le Corbusier said ‘architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light’: the space is both enlivened and connected to the outdoors by the plentiful diffuse daylight, which shifts and changes as the day goes on. Such variance in the texture and colour of light over the hours enriches the experience of the galleries and the artworks they contain: by coupling it with the exterior conditions, the difference between a clear blue sky and a warm red low sun is made tangible.

However, automated blind systems triggered by carefully designed control systems ensure that both artworks and humans are protected from the potential harm of bright sunlight. Thereby the ever adjusting natural light is kept to a comfortable level, preserving the artefacts on show. These blinds are mounted externally, which prevents any potential audible distraction as they adjust, and when they are down, the vast, elegant, floating orb light fixtures do such a good job of daylight imitation that without looking up, you wouldn’t know they were there.

The sense of connection with the outdoor environment is evoked again by the neutral palette of finishes within the galleries, the quietness and cleanness of which allows the occupant the mental space to enjoy the artwork. This is added to by the virtually imperceptible conditioning systems: I cannot taste, smell, nor feel any evidence of my highly occupied indoor surroundings. The air feels crisp, still, and fresh, meaning I am sensorily undistracted.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Tate Britain exemplifies another design feature which I consider to be of inescapable import these days: that of environmental responsibility. The maximal use of daylight, combined with low energy lighting systems whose use is minimised, and natural means of ventilation wherever possible, mean that the energy load of the museum is drastically lower than other buildings of its type. I like the fact that our historical artworks are preserved in a building which not only protects them from our changing climate, but does minimal further damage to our environment. I also like the fact that there is no compromise on comfort as a result of this.

My overall feeling, when walking through the newly refurbished section of the gallery, is a sensation of quality. It is a quality of calm and of stillness which can come about only through thoughtful design, attention to detail, and real understanding of the wants and needs of the building’s occupants, both human and artefact. So, it is the perfect place to spend an unhurried, peaceful afternoon immersing yourself in art: it lifts your spirits, allowing you to be inspired by the rich historical talent it showcases.

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