For £45m you could commission a blockbuster building. But spend that same amount on a sprawling historic building and the money can be swallowed up on restoration, fixing leaky roofs and installing expensive new services and environmental controls; if the job has gone well, it can be hard to see what’s been done.
Tate is currently trying both. At Bankside, indeed, it is spending a lot more (£215m) on a pyramidal brick tower by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, a striking structure to shore up the art space inside what has become the world’s most popular museum of modern art, Tate Modern. Along the river at Millbank, meanwhile, Tate Britain has quietly undergone a comprehensive £45m seven-year programme of careful renewal and change overseen by London architects Caruso St John.
The major part of the work was unveiled in May alongside the acclaimed chronological rehang of the works in the Tate collection and includes an entirely new gallery space dedicated to Henry Moore. The new phase, however, sees the reopening of the main riverside entrance and the reconfiguring of the entrance area and rotunda in a manner that transforms the space while maintaining its particular, stony-cold Edwardian character.
The entry sequence has been opened up and made lighter with new glazed doors and an elegant window by artist Richard Wright, all of which makes the river visible in a way it never was before. The most striking new feature, though, is a spiral staircase set into the centre of the rotunda – where the gallery used to erect its artist-decorated Christmas tree.
The stair is enclosed by a curved screen made using a decorative device derived from a pattern found on an original floor – where it once framed a fish pond framed by aspidistras. The stair treads themselves echo the curving form in a theatrical sweep that makes the journey down to what once felt very much like a second-rate space – the basement – feel grand and deliberate. 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.
The basement itself has been revamped, retaining the existing café with its vaulted ceilings and adding a new café space that spills on to a sunken terrace at the front of the building. A new vaulted ceiling has been created here and decorated with infinite care by artist Alan Johnston, whose delicate pencil work carefully articulates the individual vaulted segments.
The basement spaces, with their chalky white vaults, geometrically decorated floors and elegant spermatozoa-shaped ceiling lights supported in a metal ring armature evoke a Mitteleuropa café interior, the sort of thing the Austrian-Czech architect and theorist Adolf Loos might have had a hand in. There is also a new subterranean archive gallery, which will house artist-curated shows. This space, with its coarse brick walls and its more industrial aesthetic, is very different from the cool, academic classicism upstairs; it is centred on the panopticon heart of the notorious Millbank penitentiary, which formerly occupied the site (a history reflected on in Paul Noble’s selection of works for the inaugural exhibition).
In the gallery above the rotunda, meanwhile, is a new, self-consciously glamorous long bar and members’ space, opening up an area that had been inaccessible to the public. Loos reappears here as the inspiration behind the new Doric column-legged bar stools, which sit alongside an unusual collection of specially made furniture all inspired by Arts and Crafts or fin de siècle precedents, from Mackintosh to Lutyens. A “Grand Saloon” at the front of the building has also been brought back into (partial) public use as a new members’ functions room, its decorative ceiling restored.
While much of the meticulous restoration work is almost invisible, Caruso St John have created subtle interventions that posit a new language for the circulation spaces which feed the galleries. The architects have long experimented with ornamentation, in a manner that many of their peers have been reluctant to do. Though the results have varied in success (the oddly two-dimensional façade of the V&A’s Museum of Childhood front porch in Bethnal Green comes to mind), here they have pulled it off, in a manner simultaneously sympathetic and striking.
Designed by the deservedly obscure Sydney Smith, with later, increasingly good, additions by William Romaine-Walker, Charles Holden and John Russell Pope (later the architect of Washington DC’s Jefferson memorial and National Gallery of Art), Tate Britain has fine galleries but it is not a masterpiece. Caruso St John’s work is largely unassuming but, in stitching together the elements of a complex, occasionally disparate building, they have made it as good as it can be. Clean, calm and bright, it is a scheme of clarity and intelligence. Walking around the collection, once a trudge, is now a pleasure.