Tate St Ives: First Look at the New £20m Underground Art Gallery

Tate St Ives // Photo by RachelDewis/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Caroline Roux, The Telegraph, October 4, 2017

In 1993, a new building opened in St Ives whose business was hard to identify. Where once there had been a gasworks facing Porthmeor Beach, now there was an ebullient double-height rotunda, which looked something like the entrance to a 1930s cinema. Inside was amphitheatre-style seating made in the local stone.

One floor up, a curved corridor wrapped round it. This was the new Tate St Ives, a building designed by the local partnership of David Shalev and Eldred Evans, who had taken the region by storm in 1984 with their blusteringly postmodern Truro law courts. 

Now, 24 years on, another building has appeared to its right, perched above the beach – a pavilion that emerges from the hill, clad in shimmering shiplap ceramic tiles that turn green and blue under rapidly changing Cornish skies.

This is the latest extension to Tate St Ives, by Jamie Fobert Architects, which opens to the public on 14 October.  The two buildings, which have been seamlessly woven together inside the hill, have doubled the available exhibition space.

Where before visitors coming for a full-on experience of the famous St Ives School often left feeling let down – where was the local work they’d come to see? The Bernard Leach pots, the dazzling Patrick Heron paintings? – today in the original galleries hangs the full complement of Alfred Wallis seascapes, Ben Nicholson abstracts, Barbara Hepworth sculptures and Peter Lanyon landscapes.

Work by international St Ives-influenced names, such as the Dutchman Piet Mondrian, will appear too. 

At the end of this original enfilade  of rooms, intimate galleries built to  service a previous era of daintier art, visitors now enter Fobert’s spacious new addition. Connecting spaces lined with textured panelling give way to a square arch lined with limed oak that leads to a 483msq, column-free gallery washed with the inimitable blue light that brought artists to St Ives in the  first place.

"That was a science project," says Jamie Fobert, pointing up to the  six evenly distributed skylights. "We worked with the engineers for a couple of years to get the amount of light right."

When we go outside, they jut out of the ground by several metres, and Fobert has created a landscape of Cornish stone around them.  To make the new gallery connect to the old, Fobert excavated right into the hill; its roof a part of the landscape.

"It was important to hide away much of the building," he says. "This is a community of 10,000. The last thing they needed was another Guggenheim, a big flashy icon at the edge of their town." Canadian Fobert set up his own practice in London in 1996, after cutting his teeth in the studio of David Chipperfield.

He has won multiple awards for a series of ingenious individual houses, and created retail environments for a long list of fabulous names including Versace and Givenchy. But St Ives is his biggest step so far, and he certainly knows a thing or two about the community he is serving here.

As we walk up and down the winding streets, with their fishermen’s cottages and fudge shops (surely the world’s highest concentration per capita), local people stop to ask him how things are going.  The opening is hotly anticipated. The Tate is important to the local economy and to the town’s identity.

"The original building is very dear to people here. I hope they get to like mine as much," says the architect, for whom the project has been a long time coming.

Jamie Fobert Architects first won the competition to design the extension to Tate St Ives in 2005, with a scheme that stood proudly above ground and caused a lot of consternation about the loss of parking spaces in Barnoon car park.

"I still have a 'Save Barnoon' T-shirt," laughs Fobert. Then, following the acquisition by Cornwall Council of the land where Fobert’s excavation eventually took place, a new competition was launched. "The delay was useful in the end," says Nicholas Serota, director of Tate from 1988 until this summer.

"Things had changed. We realised we needed  a space where many different art forms could take place – film, video, performance and so on. The original building already offered spectacular views. We didn’t need any more of those.

"In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a big move by architects to open up  the art institution, to make the insides visible. We’ve moved on from that. It’s more about the beautiful gallery space inside the building."

Fobert, undeterred, won the competition again in 2012 – his buried-below-ground scheme actually increasing the number of spaces in the car park, to local delight (parking is a red-hot issue in St Ives). Corners of Fobert’s original pavilion have been chamfered away to ensure houses on top of the hill keep their sea views.

"Some architects come up with a vision first and make it work second," says Fobert, "but I prefer to solve the practical things first and the architecture comes later." 

Mark Osterfield, Tate St Ives’ executive director (also a trained ballet dancer and a fine artist) agrees. The brief, he says, included the large  exhibition space, educational facilities, and a way to get huge pieces of work in and out of the building.

"Jamie laid  everything out and then jigsawed all the parts together. That’s when the form emerges and you get a unique set of spaces."  Inside, the main gallery’s ceiling is a grid of pale grey concrete beams – reminiscent of those in the local sail lofts – which for all their lightness can carry the weight of four double-decker buses.

The floor is concrete, with gritty inclusions of aggregate – "I wanted it to feel beachy," says Fobert. "One of the first things Nick Serota said to me was, 'Never forget that this is Cornwall.'" For the opening, it will be filled with the work of Rebecca Warren, the 52-year-old British sculptor shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2006.

Fobert was thrilled to find out she would be first in – "Her work is so alive," he says of her animated semi-abstract bronze figures – and that she wanted to make full use of his carefully precise daylight. Serota, meanwhile, approves the connection that Warren makes with Barbara Hepworth, the town’s most famous female artist, whose own sculpture garden is just up the road.

"Hepworth feels the landscape, and refers back to the mythic form, the obelisk, [while] Rebecca Warren is into Robert Crumb and comics and the quirks of the human body. But both of them work with the human figure."

Warren’s new work comes under the title All That Heaven Allows, after the Technicolor 1955 melodrama by Douglas Sirk, in which a put-upon Jayne Wyman falls in love with a  rugged gardener played (quite  convincingly, considering everything about the movie is desperately camp) by Rock Hudson in a checked shirt.

Warren’s figures, standing three metres high, are streaked with the candy colours of the film. Subsequent shows will feature the 20th-century artist Patrick Heron and a look at Virginia Woolf’s connection to St Ives (the lighthouse that inspired her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse can be found here).

Fobert remarks that he can’t get away from the Bloomsbury set – he’s also working at Charleston, their Sussex playground, making barn-like buildings in concrete and Corten steel to house new gallery spaces and the archive. But before that’s completed  in the spring of next year, he’ll be celebrating the opening of the Tate St Ives, wearing his "Save Barnoon" T-shirt under his suit.  

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This article was written by Caroline Roux from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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