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Adapt and Survive

Hugh Pearman

Why the Tate Britain revamp is well worth a deco

We all like our architectural moments. Those times when we look at a new building and go: that wasn’t what I expected, at all. That’s...different. These moments, in recent years, have come all too seldom. There has been a distinct lack of manifesto-led, dogma-driven, table-overturning or just stop-in-your-tracks original architecture. Perhaps we are sated. With even the maverick likes of postmodernist FAT now accepted as mainstream, with Will Alsop strangely quiet, with OMA making the preposterous routine, with Central Asian regimes buying into Zaha/Schumacher parametricism, Malaysian developers building dRMM in Battersea, and the Stirling Prize won by a restored castle – what’s next, sensation-seekers? I’ve pondered many possibilities recently but there is one development I really did not see coming: the revival of Art Deco at Tate Britain.

Use the new Tate Britain spiral staircase and you’ll start looking for flappers and Bright Young Things. It could almost be a Poirot set

One project does not make a movement, true, any more than Caruso St John previously restarted Victorian polychromy or Arts and Crafts, two of its parallel enthusiasms. And its Tate Britain project is a lot more than just Deco. It’s an intellectual exploration of commercial classicism, proto-modern­­ism, Swedish Grace, and, yes, a large dollop of what, as discussed in our 120th anniversary issue last month, the ageing Lethaby in 1928 called ‘jazzery jump’. All I can say is – go and use the new Tate Britain spiral staircase and you’ll start looking for flappers and Bright Young Things. Monochrome it may be, but it could almost be a Poirot set. I could go on and on about details such as glass inserts in the top balustrade, the sense of a spreading peacock’s tail that the floor design evokes – but let’s switch to the new furniture upstairs, which is a fascinating fusion of styles trembling on the very cusp of tradition and modernity. 

So, Tate Britain is indeed one of those interesting architectural moments, perhaps unlikely to be widely imitated, and too costly for most to be able to achieve this sumptuous quality. Just look at the double-curved opal glass panels in the spiral stair balustrade as it descends, and your eyes will turn into dollar signs. Remember, one of the things that did for commercial postmodernism in the 1980s was that it looked shoddy from the start. Not this.

But it tells us something else, something more general, does the new Tate Britain. It tells us lots about the interesting coming-­together of ‘heritage’ and modernism – something also touched on by Sir Terry Farrell in our discussion with him of the Farrell Review into architecture. He takes the line that the ‘us and them’ attitude that has prevailed since the 1960s between the old and the new has now largely vanished. One can think of plenty of exceptions, but he has a point: both Witherford Watson Mann’s Stirling-winning Astley Castle, and now Tate Britain, present an architecture that talks the language of the old rather than acting as a foil to it. Architects are increasingly interested in the best ideas of the past and in the idea of architectural con­tinuity, which also happens to chime with ­enlightened re-use rather than demolition. We might just be entering the era of Enlightened Adaptation.