Saturday, June 24, 2006

Tate St Ives

Despite having visited the Tate gallery in St Ives at least 5 times, it is only recently that I have come to the conclusion that it is a really poor piece of architecture.

It is a conclusion reached with some reluctance as it is clear that this is a building one is meant to like and admire. What is admirable is the vision to locate an important gallery at the furthest extremity of the British Isles, the homage paid to the freshness and vitality of the St Ives artistic tradition and the boldness in siting the building in one of the town's most sensitive and beautiful locations.

In recognition of these successes, thousands of visitors take time off from the beaches and gift-shops to spend an hour or two in wondering and reverential comtemplation of Art. One has to ask oneself however: just how well are they served by this building?

Tate St Ives is not a building that is content to step modestly aside and let the art take the limelight. Quite the opposite seems the case. After passing through the grand entrance loggia, ticket office, mall and rotunda, the Art appears, if anything, further away than ever. It is only after having ascended two storeys (passing the shop and various invitations to 'interact') that one arrives at the somewhat disappointing series of small galleries. Here the Architecture is forced -somewhat reluctantly - to concede a corner or two to the lesser arts.

On every one of my visits I have been overtaken, at this point, by a profound sense of disorientation. I never quite seem to know where the sea is anymore. Is it over in that direction - or exactly opposite?

It is as if (but surely this can't have been the architects' intention), in order to prepare the Mind for Art, it is necessary to effect a complete disassociation from the world outside. The only gallery to contradict this impression - and the clear favourite of photographers - is gallery 2, with its spectacular view of Porthmeor beach.

The cafeteria terrace is unhabitable. Dazzingly bright in the sun and unprotected from the rain, people have abandoned it and surrendered it to the seagulls - who use it as a toilet.

I suppose its only to be expected that - given the high profile of the place - it should win commendations from the Royal Fine Art Commission and English Heritage. Open-minded visitors will make up their own minds.

Here was a unique and wonderful opportunity lost. It is a great pity.


  1. Excellent post man. I thoroughly agree and find that all the tates support the edifice that is 'Art' by reinforcing the untouchable, disorienting and distant, existing ideology taken by the average person. Reaffirming their preconcieved notion that Art is for those 'other' ppl who tend to be a tad up themselves and spout verbal diahrea. Instead of representing the actual physical piece sitting in a corner, hanging on a wall, or floating in space, cyber or otherwise. Truly a shame but then when you stumble across a humble gallery, slowly languishing away on a side street in your average city and find Art being Art you are all the more appreciative.

  2. Having read your comments on my post for this subject, and now, also, your own post, I do find that I have some agreement with your point of view. Maybe if I had visited the place 5 times I might begin to find yet more similarities of view.
    Whatever you might think of the building, and externally I quite liked it, its biggest problem to my mind is that internally it does dominate the art. There is an awful lot of space in there which is not fully utilised, and probably never can be because of the design.
    We visited on a poor day weatherwise and were perhaps grateful to get in, out of the cold. That said, and for all its shortcomings, we did enjoy the experience. Another part of the Tate in St Ives is, of course, the Barbara Hepworth museum which was much more to our taste with its more tactile approach. Although much smaller than Tate St Ives, it packs in so much more.
    The new gallery is just that:new. It has yet to find an identity of its own amongst all the traditional Cornishness surrounding it. The Tate Modern in London adopted a building that already had a personality of its own, and they have made good use of it there. Perhaps in time the Tate St Ives will come of age and realise its true potential.
    I doubt I shall get down there again, so let me know when (or if) it does.