Tate Britain goes Deco

The Art Deco/Swedish Grace revival starts here, in the Tate Gallery on London’s Millbank, in the hands of architect Caruso St John. This would have counted as postmodernism 30 years ago, so there is a wry symmetry in the fact that this £45m re-ordering of the Tate’s public spaces and galleries involved the site of a famous early piece of PoMo, Jeremy Dixon’s 1982 basement cafe which itself channelled the spirit of Soane’s breakfast room.

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Some of this project is subtle to the point of invisibility. Rightly, the refurbished galleries are not trying to be anything other than that – the new hang of the art is the thing, and that is beautifully done. Though if wandering art- lovers glance up they might wonder at the fat glowing light tubes hanging along their centre lines, and taking on a circular form in tighter spaces. These luminaires, also designed by the architects and specially made by Louis Poul­sen, fit in with the eclectically moderne feel of the whole project. Now that technology allows light sources to effectively disappear, it takes an architect to do to exactly the opposite, and turn them back into solid architecture. ­Although they are made in acrylic for lightness’ sake, they hang on chromed straps and really want to be in opal glass. Which is a mat­erial used elsewhere, in the biggest, boldest move in this composition. The new spiral stair.

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This stair is a building in itself. It is pure architecture, with all the strangeness of pur­ity, plus a distinct touch of luxe. In functional terms this is the big move, opening up the ‘ground’ floor (of course perched haught­ily high atop its flight of steps) to the now opened-out and expanded basement areas, in turn now fully accessible from a lowered ground level outside. But it is about so much more than function. It is a statement of architectural continuity. Revivalism maybe, but as with Caruso St John’s previous exercises in reconnecting with history (notably its Victorian­-polychromy front extension to Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood) it is done with contemporary bravura.

I don’t know if I like this stair yet. I admire it. It feels gorgeous. It is clever, possibly too clever. It is intricate, possibly too intricate. Deco-ish it may be – picking up on a motif of scallop-shells apparently found elsewhere in the building – but monochrome, its top balustrade in cream and black, fibre-reinforced, smoothly-polished, precast concrete. There are glass inserts and the material becomes very thin in places while always having a monolithic strength. The pattern starts as a circular motif on the floor, so it as if the floor has been lifted to form this balustrade. You descend the curving steps past a slippery balustrade of double-curved opal glass, each panel edged in chrome. The imagery is multi­valent. 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.

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From the main entry level you descend to the opened-out basement – a sequence of beautiful calm spaces expressed as thick arches and shallow vaults, including the refurbished restaurant with its restored Rex Whistler mural. A new cafe opens out to the gardens and there is a big education suite. Or you can ascend, for the first time since the 1920s, via a subsidiary new stair, to the balcony area around the dome and a members’ cafe-lounge. Its furniture ­refers almost fearsomely to the early 20th century, from Lutyens to Loos, mostly designed or adapted by Caruso St John.

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The deep balcony around the base of the dome has become a café-bar with all that mad furniture. And right at the front, in the portico itself, they have re-revealed a lost gallery, the Grand Saloon, that had been carved up into offices (Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota’s among them). That’s now going to be a place for seminars and events.

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The original Tate is an unsubtle piece of showy commercial classicism by Sidney R J Smith, since adapted by various hands inc­luding John Miller and Partners at the turn of the Millennium. Caruso St John has added a layer of intellect and historic reference while restoring aspects of Smith’s original, such as the first-floor Grand Saloon overlooking the Thames. It has added subtlety to Smith, with a touch of cool jazz. Think of it this way: ­Asplund takes Grey Wornum to Eltham ­Palace in winter.

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This is an interesting moment in architecture. The idea of ‘heritage’ and the idea of ‘modern’ are merging. It used to be axiomatic (at any rate among modernists, who referred to William Morris on this point) that any alteration had to show it was different from the original, otherwise it was in some way dishonest. At Tate Britain, Caruso St. John have blown that consensus to smithereens. No, this is not the start of an Art Deco revival. But it is evidence that there’s a great deal less us-and-them in architecture than there used to be. I don’t yet like the new Tate Britain, I have to get used to its weirdness. But I can see what it’s all about. And it’s both admirable and brave.

Text and top photo © Hugh Pearman, other photos courtesy of Caruso St. John © Hélène Binet. Edited from two pieces published in the RIBA Journal and The Sunday Times, November 2013.

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