Tate Britain’s new Members Room is now open in the top floor Rotunda, a space that has been closed to the public since 1928. Rod Heyes, lead architect from Caruso St John, talks us through the concept of the space and the choice of the bespoke furniture
Sidney Smith’s original neo-classical building for the Tate Gallery of British Art opened during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and exudes a patrician nationalism. The building is divided into three main floors - a basement for servicing, a piano nobile, or principal level, for galleries and a top floor of social spaces. Only the upper two storeys were originally intended for public activity but this shifted during the twentieth century and the highest level fell out of use while the base began to house restaurant, café and other rooms for visitors. As architects, we felt that this unbalanced the building, and blinded the public to the grand prospect of the river and to the fantastical pseudo-Roman architecture of lanterns, domes, rooftop sphinxes and griffins. The Upper Rotunda is special, removed from the bustle of the entrance, but also open, very light and sociable – providing a perfect setting for a new Members’ area. So our principal aim was to restore these spaces and bring them back into use.
To me, this encounter between an architectural idea from the past and a contemporary way of living is exciting and full of potential. The new lift and staircase, the bar and Members’ desk, the furniture and the menu all provide opportunities to adapt this Victorian setting without any nostalgia or pomposity. Tate is an open institution, not a private members’ club, and part of the challenge was to sweep away the jaded imperiousness and replace it with a kind of grand democratic ease.
In our initial designs, we looked at using European furniture by Rietveld and Le Corbusier which had no connection to English Neoclassicism. We selected pieces that were quite muscular and undercut the frothiness of the existing architecture. The atmosphere didn’t seem quite right and Tate Britain’s Director, Penelope Curtis, suggested an investigation of British furniture from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Swedish and Austrian examples from this period are well known, like Thonet’s bentwood or Jacobsen’s plywood chairs, and provide the prototypes for some contemporary mass production furniture. British examples are more obscure and we came across E. W. Godwin and W. H. Russel and started to imagine versions of their furniture which were recognisably contemporary but with origins in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Some pieces we hybridised with chairs by Adolf Loos, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Gunnar Asplund. Like our proposals for the building, we were excited by an ambiguity in which the design hovers between a late nineteenth century figurativeness, a modern interest in abstraction and a contemporary precision in manufacture. We iterated the overall design several times, combining different pieces, including a beautiful asymmetric armchair by Edwin Lutyens, trying to get the right atmosphere that rhymed with the existing building without joining in with the chauvinism of the original architect.
The result is that the loftiness of the Upper Level is back in the public eye. The new Members Room has seats for ninety people in amongst the domes and arches and wraps around the Rotunda with views of the new staircase and the bustle of the galleries below. The furniture is organised in relaxed groups and there are places to sit at the new bar. At quiet times the atmosphere is secluded and a bit ethereal. The scale is grand and very generous but the new spaces are approachable and idiosyncratic. I think it’s quite unlike any other public room in London.