Kate Heron on Jamie Fobert Architects’ additions to Tate St Ives in Cornwall


Katharine Heron

Dennis Gilbert, Hufton & Crow

Jamie Fobert Architects’ addition to Tate St Ives – itself completed by Evans & Shalev in 1993 – exquisitely and intelligently unlocks much more of the potential of the privileged site, and of the Tate’s ambition for its use. The new building incorporates a large gallery dedicated to changing temporary exhibitions, allowing the existing gallery to focus on historic museum selections that change infrequently. It also offers generous public space and an elegant solution to a local resentment.

Fobert’s first proposal for the site, made in 2005, had met implacable opposition, so a fresh start was made, complete with competitive tendering and appointments to successfully resolve local concerns, largely relating to car parking. The completed project stands as a testament to patient listening and careful advocacy by Tate St Ives executive director Mark Osterfield and former Tate director Nicholas Serota, and the loyalty of the architect.


Fobert’s clever design has been beautifully and sensitively executed. A single gallery space is carved into the hard Blue Elvan stone cliffside, with sheer 5.4-metre-high walls, rooflights above and a plain neutral surface underfoot. A grid of concrete beams hints at the potential for temporary subdivision with partitions. It is a serene space with minimal detail and without fuss or distraction, but the changing light from above keeps you aware of the outside world. The sense of restful enclosure and containment is accentuated by the lack of through-traffic – it is the place of arrival, your destination.


For the inaugural exhibition, ‘All That Heaven Allows’, sculptor Rebecca Warren has made new work for this space. It is installed with grace and imagination, giving and receiving as if the partnership between artwork and gallery has been long established, with bigger pieces reaching for the skies and the smallest hugging the walls. The tall figures are cast in bronze and painted, their handmade-ness evident in facetted surfaces that sparkle with animation beneath the changing natural light and carefully placed artificial light. It is an excellent choice to open the new gallery.


It is tempting to compare the qualities of this gallery with Fobert’s earlier Anderson House (2003). Carved into spaces behind and between a number of central London houses, it had no external facade and so relied on the sky above for outlook and animation. The Tate St Ives extension, however, does have facades, which elegantly enclose the back-of-house areas and provide much improved access, allowing for the delivery and handling of large artworks.

These facades are clad with ceramic tiles in a gorgeously subtle variegated colour – like a jade green celadon glaze – that pays homage to the celebrated St Ives potter Bernard Leach, and to the sea and sky.


The roof of the new gallery has been crafted into a public area with paving and seating interwoven between the rooflights to the gallery below. From here you can look out to the ever-changing Atlantic Ocean. Here are myriads of black-clad surfers waiting patiently to ride their waves; adjacent headlands familiar from the work of so many artists; rare days of calm, winter storms and glorious summer sunsets. And from here too you can nod across the stepped path to the beach, to Barnoon Cemetery, where the grave of fisherman-turned-painter Alfred Wallis is decorated with grey-green tiles by Bernard Leach.

The new gallery is as generous to the town as it is to the earlier building; it gives a remarkable new outward-looking public space, and it doesn’t form a competing facade. It resolves the problematic circulation in the original building with the brilliant move of reversing the flow, providing a clear route to the new gallery. There is a smooth transition from old to new along the same route and at the principal level of the galleries. This is a subtle achievement, apparently with minimal adjustment of the previous building, and a number of small refinements that have been collaboratively effected by Fobert and Evans & Shalev.

In fact, the original architect has also been back at work at the gallery, and is responsible for the new, upper-level Clore Sky Studio, adjacent to the existing cafe and the open terrace. This provides an elaborate means of getting daylight into the Foyle education room below, while confirming the overwhelming pleasurable sense of a seaside pavilion. From this upper level, there are spectacular views of beach, ocean and sky. What nicer place to eat a crab sandwich out of reach of marauding seagulls?

The project cost about £20m. Just imagine if, say, the budget of the aborted Garden Bridge was to be dispersed around the country, and we could have ten galleries of this calibre. Dream on.

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Jamie Fobert Architects, Evans & Shalev
Structural engineer
Price & Myers
Services engineer
Max Fordham
Jamie Fobert Architects with Rathbone Partnership

Froyle Tiles
De Lank Quarry
Thames Valley Construction