Critical Round-Up: Tate Britain Renovation, Caruso St. John

Lower level rotunda, Tate Britain - Courtesy Caruso St. John and Tate. Image © Helene Binet

London's Tate Britain, a partner gallery to the Tate Modern (who recently appointed Herzog & de Meuron to design a new extension), recently unveiled Caruso St. John's transformation of the oldest part of the iconic Grade II* listed Millbank building. The £45 million project to restore, renovate and reinterpret one of the UK's most important galleries has been met with a largely positive critical response; read the conclusions of The Financial Times’ Edwin Heathcote, The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright, The Independent's Jay Merrick, the RIBA Journal's Hugh Pearman, and the Architects’ Journal’s Rory Olcayto, after the break…

Oliver Wainwright, Guardian

For Wainwright, the revamp of the Tate Britain, which has “long suffered from an identity complex”, is the first time that a practice has given consideration to the whole of the building, rather than just extensions and isolated alterations.

The new space is, for Wainwright, an “inviting place of arched openings and vaulted ceilings, with the majesty of a Roman catacomb”. Of particular note is the “spectacular” new staircase that “plunges through the floor of the Millbank entrance rotunda in a swirling op art whirlpool of black and white terrazzo”.

Lined with a mirror-polished handrail and pearly glass, it brings a dose of glitz and glamour (with a hint of the Dubai shopping mall), flirting close to the boundaries of good taste.

Noting the attention to detail, specifically with regard to the furniture and the lighting, Wainwright praises Caruso St.John for balancing “the stripped classicism of the early 20th-century architects [...] with a modern twist”. 

Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times

Like Wainwright, Heathcote notes that the staircase takes centre stage - making "the journey down to what once felt very much like a second-rate space – the basement – feel grand and deliberate” - while at the same time flirting on the boundaries of over-done opulence:

The Henry Moore Gallery at Tate Britain - Courtesy Caruso St. John and Tate. Image © Helene Binet

If there is a criticism to be made it is that the mirror-polished handrails and spiralling glass look a little too sparkly, with a touch too much of the oligarch’s mansion about them.

However, Heathcoate's overall impression is positive: while Caruso St. John’s experimentation with ornamentation may have been “varied in success” in the past, explains Heathcoate, in the Tate Britain “they have pulled it off, in a manner simultaneously sympathetic and striking”; the “meticulous” restoration is made up of almost invisible, “subtle interventions that posit a new language for the circulation spaces which feed the galleries”; they have transformed “the space while maintaining its particular, stony-cold Edwardian character”.

Jay Merrick, Independent

Merrick notes that although the transformation of the building appears effortless, he has no doubt the process was “tortuous”: the “new interiors float like pristine swans on a lake of creative sweat”. Merrick prasies the subtlety of the project whose paint colours, terrazzo flooring, and joinery are all based on the original palette of materials:

The Grand Saloon - Courtesy Caruso St. John and Tate. Image © Helene Binet

Peter St John suggests that the changes at the Tate are “radical”, but they’re not. The new interventions are architecturally logical, and fastidiously subtle.

For Merrick, the result is an unequivocable succes: Caruso St. John have made the arrival experience, which once felt “like being trapped in an architectural hernia”, “far more welcoming and architecturally elegant”; “this fusion of history and modern spatial organisation has given the Tate a much more relaxed gravitas”. 

Hugh Pearman, RIBA Journal

The new Djanogly café - Courtesy Caruso St. John and Tate. Image © Helene Binet

While noting that “some of this project is subtle to the point of invisibility”, Pearman, too, puts much of his focus on those not-so-subtle details.

Although he has not decided whether he likes the staircase or not (“I admire it. It feels gorgeous. It is clever, possibly too clever. It is intricate, possibly too intricate”), he describes it as “a building in itself” - “pure architecture, with all the strangeness of purity, but with a distinct touch of luxe”. He gives particular praise to the luminaires (also designed by Caruso St. John):

When technology is now at a point when light sources can effectively disappear, it takes an architect to do to exactly the opposite, and turn them back into solid architecture.

The new Members Room at Tate Britain - Courtesy Caruso St. John and Tate. Image © Helene Binet

In the end, however, Pearman notes that “there is a chill to this otherwise super-rich architecture, a Nordic chill, but other influences – from turn-of-the-century Berlin, Vienna, even London – also infiltrate”; Thirty years ago this would have counted as postmodernism”.

Rory Olcayto, Architects’ Journal

Is this the future of British architecture? Sure. It’s called Postmodernism 2.0. Or how about just bloody good?

Noting that this year has seen “three essential projects changing how architects engage with the past” - the Stirling Prize winning Astley Castle, Urban Splash’s Park Hill retrofit and this, the Tate Britain “museum remodel [which] willfully blurs the line between old and new”, Olcayto suggests that Caruso St. John's work has proclaimed a new era of “timeless” architecture in Britain.

For Olcayto, "somehow the new stuff feels timeless" noting how, after such a long project, Caruso St. John know the old building inside out. What he would describe as the best new space, the members gallery, is not publicly accessible - a sign of the fact that "with government subsidies on the slide" an increase in public donors will soon "typify the cultural sector".

References: Tate, Caruso St. John

About this author
Cite: James Taylor-Foster. "Critical Round-Up: Tate Britain Renovation, Caruso St. John" 28 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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