Last week's debate on whether viewing art was social experience put out an offshoot; from the people we see art with, into the spaces that we see art in. So this week, we're dedicating the debate to whether the architecture of galleries influences the way we see the work in them.

  • Tate Debate Banner image

Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate said recently of architect Max Gordon: ‘He was always intent that the space shouldn’t dominate the art.’

Gordon designed the first Saatchi Gallery in London in the 1980s, and went on to create galleries, studios and living spaces for artists and gallerists both in Europe and the US.

He said his focus on creating spaces ‘to allow pictures to breathe and be enjoyed without distraction’. These calm quit regular spaces have come to define how we think of contemporary art galleries. Historic collection galleries in turn have their own vocabulary, often neo-classical, rich-toned and imposing. But sometimes, the architecture of a gallery becomes its defining characteristic, the thing that draws you to visit – and that influences the sort of work you can see there.

Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2009
Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2009 by jazzlog, on Flickr

The Guggenheim in New York attracted much criticism when it opened in 1959, with John Canaday in the New York Times calling it ‘a war between architecture and painting in which both come out badly maimed.’ The curved walls and sloping floors may make showing painting a feat of engineering, but perhaps it is the ideal place to see work by artists who create experiences . Also, an architectural space like no other can provide a completely original experience – looking out from the ramp across the rotunda you see works framed in a way unike anywhere else.

Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project and Carsten Holler's Test Site
Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project and Carsten Höller's Test Site

 Tate Modern’s Unilever Series commissions an artist to create a work specifically for the Turbine Hall each year. The repurposed industrial space of the Turbine Hall has become an iconic destination in its own right. The space surely shapes the works in there as they are conceived and made specifically to be seen there. But perhaps those works are not always strictly site-specific, and they actually redefine the space each year, the architecture fading into a backdrop.

So, how much does architecture impact on your experience of art?

Is it possible for the spaces we see art in to be neutral?

Are some galleries so interesting architecturally, they dwarf the art?

Or are gallery spaces malleable – do they seem different when they show different work?

Tate Debate aims to open up new discussions around art, museum practice and wider culture. The topics debated are chosen and written by a range of people across the organisation.


Kirstie Beaven

I think it's more common with historic collections or exhibitions to have walls that are coloured - perhaps responding to how those works would have been seen at the time they were made. And I wonder if contemporary artists today would choose to install work in coloured rooms, or if they make them with a white gallery space in mind for display?

Ofili's Upper Room is a great example though of an artist working in a traditional medium collaborating with an architect (David Adjaye) to create the ideal space to experience those works. The paneled walls and ceiling created a space apart from the rest of the gallery. As you say, entering through a dim corridor and finding the works illuminated against a darker background heightened the colours and atmosphere.

Here's a link to a couple of images of the room installed at Tate Britain.

Kirstie Beaven

I quite like the idea that too-neutral spaces make the art in them less interesting. Tough to strike a balance as you say though, in letting the art come to the fore and providing a "thrilling" space.

I do agree though with you and @Cathy that the ideal is when the architecture works with the art and provides you with something new.


I guess the aim of creating clean white boxes inside galleries is to make the setting as neutral and unobtrusive as possible. But I'm not sure that's ever possible, is it? Even the plain white walls give us certain expectations or cues about how we should react. Susuan Philipsz addressed this brilliantly with her piece "Lowlands" in the 2010 Turner Prize exhibition - the 'sound installation' forced me to consider the room around me in a way I'd never done before. I think the noise also had an impact on the way I approached the other works on display too. (I guess that's another interesting aspect of this - is it just the visual aspects of a space which affect how work is viewed, or do other features of the environment - like sound - have an effect too? Even things like temperature or smell?)

My first encounter with the Turbine Hall was Rachel Whiteread's Embankment. At the time, I was totally overwhelmed by it. It would have been totally impossible without the huge space of the Turbine Hall, but it would also have been a very different kind of work. It's almost as if the works in the Unilever series feel out of place in the big, industrial space, but I think this is a feature which the artists have generally used to great effect. Shibboleth was a perfect example.

chris butcher

In the tradition and continuating principles of Wright, brought modernism and the celebration of the basic principles together. the genius of it all, is with f l wright, if one looks through the catalouge clearly wright is on a higher plain,Very much a organic world,in materials and nature .his building blocks like strands of dna, strikes a chord,clarity and vision, when paging through his volume of work


The architecture of a gallery or a museum definitly influences our vision. It can even completely shadow the art and works that can be seen in theses spaces. The guggenheim in Bilbao is a perfect example of this as the buiding itself is such amazing that you would expect amazing pieces in there. Yet you keep being dazzled by the way the museum is built and the spaces are shaped inside and outside. They clearly give the art a different dimension as the painting, sculpture and installation inherit part of the building aura or get overwhelmed by it. Visiting such spaces is thrilling and gives the visit a joyful playing touch which quite contrats with some other common, plain, boring white spaces which neutrality impact on the interest of the art. The building, the spaces are clearly to be designed to give the art amateur a full experience. One may regret that the balance between the spaces and the art displayed in them is not always fair to the art.

Bilqis Ajam

Like most things in life, there needs to be a balance. The architecture shouldn't be too busy or distracting as compared to the art, but on the other hand, shouldn't be too basic as not to invite people in. Both should go hand in hand. No one can debate the fact that surroundings really matter. Tall buildings only look impressive in a landscape of smaller ones. I would love to see galleries even change the colour of their plain white walls to match the artwork. Who came up with the idea that white is the most neutral colour history?? It is definitely not true in nature. I'd like to give the example of the room Cris Ofili built at the Tate. The feel of the erupting darkness and the intense colours of the paintings under spotlight made a great impact on me. architecture is really important to art as it creates the atmosphere in which we can enjoy the work.

Cathy Read

Personally I think they are as important as each other. Extraordinary work is transported to new dimensions when seen in stunningly designed buildings. I'm an artist whose work is inspired by contemporary architecture. I've seen art that excites me in neutral spaces. But I think the Wow moments have been where the space and the art have a symbiotic relationship. One feeds of the creative energy of the other.

ruth Gilmore Langs

Art work should always stand on its own. Never buy a painting to match the couch. However, as a painter if I had to choose between a building of huge glass and archetectual significance or a basement apartment, archetectual wins. There is no doubt that a beautiful space enhances art!

Angela Sung

I think the concept of architecture (originally to provide a space to show art works) is expanding more and more as the artists and curators are incorporating the space with the art works they are exhibiting. Also, technology allows us to change the space (from moving partitions to open ceiling, digital programming, lights, etc.) according to the art works pushing the boundary of the concept that one space for all art. (Therefore, architecutre/environment plays more active role than "neutral" background) I think that's the beauty of "curated" shows. Not just collection of art works but "curated" to feel and experience the art more.