Between 2010 and 2013 Tate Britain underwent an extensive refurbishment programme, under the direction of the London-based practice Caruso St John, ‘to improve the architectural quality and coherence of the building‘1. The work includes the interior remodelling of the original Sidney Smith 1893 Rotunda, where a new staircase provides a striking transition towards the galleries and the lower level. While being explicitly contemporary the staircase also seamlessly integrates with the existing site in a masterpiece of environmental sensibility (the word environmental being used here in reference to the writings of J.J. Gibson and Peter Zumthor).
As Ellis Woodman comments in his article for the Daily Telegraph:‘faced with the challenge of adding to this kind of rich historic setting most contemporary architects default to one of two responses: either to copy the existing architectural language or to counterpoint it with an intervention of markedly contrasting character. Caruso St John has taken a third path. Masterfully assembled in
terrazzo-like concrete and polished stainless steel, their stair is clearly no product of the 1890s but neither is it an exercise in ubiquitous 21st century minimalism.’2
Although I was familiar with the work of Caruso St John, I recently developed a deeper interest in their practice after reading Adam Caruso’s ‘The Feeling of Things’, a series of collected essays written by Adam Caruso and Peter St John published in 2008. I find this book highly inspiring and in some ways also reassuring since Adam Caruso expresses views on contemporary architecture rooted in situations, experiences, influences, emotions and expectations, not the corporate architecture based on cloned business models that is unfortunately overtaking central London, creating social and cultural non-places. In order to further clarify his position, Caruso refers to T.S. Eliot outlook on Modernism and explains that:‘in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ Eliot supports the fundamental importance of cultural continuity in the production of new work, and warns that without engaging with the historical breadth of a discipline the artist is destined to make work that is superficial and without significance to the present.’ He continues by adding that ‘the importance of traditions and histories has now been made even more complex in a heterogeneous and multi-cultural world.’3
The new Rotunda staircase clearly illustrates this perspective on architecture. The Rotunda area is situated near the river side entrance of the building, which is accessed from the street via an imposing staircase and classical portico supported by Corinthian columns. Once inside the building, crossing the formal rectangular entrance hall, the elegant curves of the Rotunda’s dome and staircase progressively emerge beyond yet another transition space of deep arches and Ionic columns. The change in the body of architecture from linear to curved is deliberately emphasised by the perceived narrowness of the passage between the entrance hall and the Rotunda. In the same way, this spatial device also serves to enhance the feeling of light and brightness experienced in the Rotunda as one emerges from the relative darkness of the arch.
The main material used for the staircase is a creamy terrazzo like concrete, beautifully polished with soft edges underlined by rhythmic black pattern inserts and complemented by a polished stainless steel handrail with glass side panels. Rather than hiding the joints between materials, they are elegantly integrated into the design, their reflective steel lines contrasting against the smooth polished concrete. I actually felt a hint of Art-Deco may have inspired the composition of forms, patterns and detailing but the materials, which also include transparent acrylic details, are unmistakably contemporary. So this new addition is undoubtedly of its time and yet also timeless, as if it’s always been there, and the exquisite quality of the design and craftsmanship elegantly lend visual and tactile comfort to the interior. Because it fully engages with the historical breadth of the location, it has depth and significance. The new stands out in its own right but in harmony with the historical context.
Despite its predominant presence as a space within the building, the Rotunda is essentially a transition space between the entrance hall and the galleries as well as now, between the ground floor and the lower ground floor. So the staircase naturally follows the curve of the interior creating a holistic horizontal and vertical flow through the space. It is beautifully illuminated by the dome glass ceiling and the contrasting darkness of the lower level is moderated by the soft line of the steps only betrayed by the hardness of the material underfoot. The parapet is thick, suggesting strength, yet its solidity is toned down by a repetition of the floor pattern carved into the polished concrete with transparent acrylic highlights. For those ascending the stairs, the view is layered through the folds of the curves and accentuated by a gradation from dark to light, revealing part of the original building and dome but not all, a pattern of visual layering that unfolds as people move up the stairs.
Visible signs are not required to indicate what is below. The sharp sound of cutlery and smell of freshly cooked food emanating for the cafe speaks for itself. Background sounds in the Rotunda tend to be restrained as dictated by most cultural spaces codes of behaviour but keynote sounds can be fairly loud, as they reverberate against the hard surfaces of the interior, although somehow not as intrusive and echoey as they are in the entrance hall nearby. Perhaps this perceived difference is made possible by the softer aspects of the Rotunda and staircase.
The new staircase has made the lower ground floor much more easily accessible from the main entrance and in doing so provides coherence to the building as a whole. While previously the Museum was experienced as two distinctive parts, it is now connected in a way that enhances the legibility of the navigation. The tapping of footsteps on the stairs also adds a new dimension to the environment and while the elegance and subdued richness of the design fully respects the integrity of the original interior it also provides a timeless atmospheric addition to the Museum.
1. The Millbank Project Available at <http://www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/millbank-project> [Accessed 23rd February 2014]
2. Woodman E (2013). Tate Britain reopening: despite 'invasive surgery', Tate Britain has never looked better Daily Telegraph 18th November 2013 Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/10456661/Tate-Britain-reopening-despite-invasive-surgery-Tate-Britain-has-never-looked-better.html> [Accessed 23rd February 2014]
3. Caruso A. (2008) The Feeling of Things Ediciones Poligrafa: Barcelona