PoMo oddity

Surf’s up: Return to the Tate St. Ives

It can be a strange thing, revisiting a building you last saw brand new, years ago. I have just returned to the Tate St. Ives, for the first time since it was finished in 1993. Back then, it was one of a clutch of Thatcher-era public buildings being completed as Britain emerged cautiously from recession under John Major’s Tory government. Others from this period were the National Gallery extension by the Venturis, Michael Hopkins’ Glyndebourne Opera House, and Grimshaw’s Waterloo International Terminal. The Tate St. Ives, however, was another matter. Designed by veteran modernists Eldred Evans and David Shalev, pals of and in Eldred’s case the early-1960s girlfriend of James Stirling, this was from their vaguely post-modern phase. It had earlier yielded their Truro Crown Court and was to culminate in their weirdly neoclassical Jesus College Library in Cambridge.

(“Jim, Jim, you are disgustingly fat. Absolutely disgustingly fat, and I know you’ve been eating steamed pudding again.” – Eldred Evans rowing with Stirling in 1963. Eldred was a bit of a wild child, described by her besotted Yale contemporary Richard Rogers as “The brightest student there, not Norman (Foster) or I…a goddess…very alluring”. Both quotes from Mark Girouard’s “Big Jim”. I met Eldred a few times in the early to mid 90s, and she still packed a punch. But I digress). It did not occur to me in 1993 to make the Stirling connection – partly through ignorance, but also because (you’ll have to believe me on this), at that time, the two Cornish buildings didn’t appear to be especially postmodern. It was all relative, of course – the likes of Stirling and Terry Farrell and of course the Venturis were into full-blooded PoMo at the time, and these Evans and Shalev buildings were restrained in comparison. Although the building was commissioned and built in the early years of the Nick Serota modernist regime at the Tate, I now wonder how much it was influenced by the tastes of his predecessor, Sir Alan Bowness.

Bowness had commissioned Stirling’s very PoMo Clore gallery extension on Millbank, and his own interest in the St. Ives school was personal – he was married to the daughter of the St. Ives artistic aristocracy, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. But Serota was not immune to PoMo, either. As director of the Whitechapel Gallery previously, Serota had hired Colquhoun and Miller to build him an extension, completed 1985. From the same generation of older modernists lightly infected with the PoMo virus, they had produced a good but slightly Mockintoshy building. Like Evans and Shalev, John Miller (sans Colquhoun) was later to dabble unconvincingly with neoclassicism at the National Galleries of Scotland. Most traces of their work at the Whitechapel were obliterated in the recent Robbrecht en Daem upgrade. So all this was in the air, but although Tate St. Ives had what any fool can now see are clearly exaggerated PoMo devices – the huge public entrance rotunda, the curiously over-elaborate stair balustrades, much busy cornicing, some monopitch roofs and a general air of heavyweight masonry – it was also off-white rather than colourful, and had a touch of high-tech in its bold rotunda glazing. Evans and Shalev had even included a bit of engineering-brick austerity from their Brutalist past. I went to see it as the scaffolding was coming down and described it at the time (Sunday Times, 2nd May 1993) thus:

“This is an exercise in the rare and difficult art of stripped-classicism, as practised in the pre-war years by Gunnar Asplund in Sweden and Charles Holden in Britain.”

I had forgotten I ever said that, and it certainly didn’t occur to me when I went round it again recently, courtesy of a family holiday, and so came across it without thinking about it first. I can sort of understand that 1993 take, and certainly the boundaries were very blurred between PoMo and neo-classicism at the time (though the real, Palladian neoclassicists never had any truck with PoMo). But I think I know what I was up to. I cited Asplund and Holden because they marked the shift from classical to modern, and both had of course designed famous rotunda-buildings. It was a way of claiming Tate St. Ives, a halfway-house building if ever there was one, for the modernist side. I couldn’t call it post-modern, since that was by 1993 becoming a term of critical abuse, and I liked the building better than to saddle it with that.

Plainly I was wrong. First, Evans and Shalev were heading in the other direction, from modernism to neoclassicism. But they hadn’t quite got there because, second, postmodern is exactly what this building is. True, Charles Jencks made a category at the time for this sort of Stirling-influenced building: Postmodern Classicism, was it, or Classical Postmodernism? Fair enough: but when I saw it again for the first time in 17 years, I merely thought: ‘Yes, of course: it’s post-modern’. The classical side of things, despite the rotunda and the effort to produce formal symmetries on what is a very asymmetric site, had, to my eyes, somehow faded in the mix over time.

The building is set into sharply rising ground right on the seafront, on the site of a former town gasworks (the rotunda is a memory of the old gasholder, or if you like a planning wheeze). At the time, I commented on the way the building presented you with a lengthy sequence of entrance spaces – rotunda, lobby one, lobby two with its large Patrick Heron window, staircase, lobby three – before you finally got to the (relatively modest) galleries. It seemed a big build-up to relatively little.

“The magnificent entrance rotunda…suggests that this is a far larger building than is the case”, I wrote. And I remember how the cafe roof terrace with its glass balustrading was already streaked with seagull shit, though either I didn’t write this, or it was edited out. I wasn’t keen on the “seriously over the top banisters”, either. But overall, I gave it a cautious thumbs-up. It seemed to be a valid third way, steering a course between mod and trad in a way that kept the mod flame burning. This was 1993, remember.

One can, oddly, just about imagine such a building being built again today, given the present reaction against the intervening years of modernism-lite, the ending of the hegemony of the glass ‘n’ steel look, and the presence of New Ornamentalism. It has weathered pretty well, the slight darkening of its white granite-chip walls serving to make it recede into the townscape more. It still seems far too much of a schlep to get to the galleries proper. The overwrought stair balusters don’t irritate me as much now, appearing to be merely eccentric. Some of Evans and Shalev’s little tricks – such as the square window right ahead of you as you emerge from the galleries, framing the view of St. Ives Bay as if it were a Turner watercolour – work as well as ever. The cafe roof terrace appears to be shut, and I’m not surprised – notices all over town warn you of the dangers of eating food in the open, where you are liable to be attacked by feral gulls.

One other thing has changed. In 1993, St. Ives was a bit of a fading resort, artists’ colony, and fishing port. The gallery was meant to help revive the economy of West Cornwall, as were the later Eden Project (Grimshaw) Falmouth Maritime Museum (Long and Kentish) and Newlyn Art Gallery (MUMA). Today, you might imagine that cultural-regeneration initiative has been a triumphant success: St. Ives is heaving, and mostly with youngsters. But the real clue to that was lurking unnoticed in another sentence in my 1993 piece. Tate St. Ives, I noted, was the only museum of modern art “to provide a place for visitors to stack their surfboards.”

Yes, arts and icon tourism is undoubtedly a part of the somewhat revived West Cornwall economy. But surfer culture is responsible for a whole lot more. And that, we can now say with perfect hindsight, would have happened anyway.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman, August 2010.

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