Tate brightened: How Tate Britain has been restored to glory

Tate Britain’s director shares her diary of the gallery’s three-year, £45m redesign.

The Grand Saloon at Tate Britain, restored to its original glory by Caruso St John. Photo: Helene Binet

I have got quite used to going into a small Portakabin in my ordinary clothes and coming out on the other side wearing builders’ boots, hard hat, hi-vis vest, gloves and goggles. “Committed to incident and injury free,” the vests say – and even if the English is odd, the Tate Britain site has been blessed with an absence of incident. The project, led by the architectural firm Caruso St John, is pretty much on time and on budget, and we are fortunate. I might almost miss this parallel world that goes on alongside the usual business of the gallery, even if it is a world that is strangely monochrome, covered in plastic, tape and cardboard – and male.

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It has been fascinating walking around a site in which every group of men is attending to something specific and often unrelated: the cracks between the terrazzo tiles, the plaster finishes, the leather upholstery or the wooden sills. The man who worked alone on the new banister has been carving banisters for 30 years.

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After two years of regular project boards, client reviews and site tours, and two years of happily asserting that everything was fine, the past few weeks feel like a dose of reality. All those decisions that we made slowly and painstakingly are suddenly happening in front of our eyes: the sign-painter is lettering the letters we agreed, over the doors we specified, and in the nominated typeface. Did we choose the right height? All those negotiations, all those questions of principle, suddenly take shape, in material form, in a very short space of time. It is odd to see the action at the end of the long line of decision-making in the form of a guy with a spirit level and some masking tape.

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Paul Noble, who is curating a collection of works that symbolise the history of Millbank and the Tate, is waiting to get into the archive gallery, where the paint refuses to dry. Now the marsh, on which we sit, and on which Paul’s project is based, seems uncomfortably present. Richard Wright, who has designed the glass and leading for the foyer, has just been down to see his window, but the upper and lower window frames are 9mm out. The turf has been laid on the much-abused lawns, after months of trampling by dislocated visitors; will it take? We can’t get the plinths and their busts up into the Rotunda because the new lift isn’t working.

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It is hard to imagine this monochrome world, coloured only by the yellow vests of builders working silently, suddenly made public and animated by families, children and by conversation. We have had tastes of how it might feel. A breakfast for a small group of colleagues enabled them to see the spaces in daylight, which has been a key part of the architects’ thinking. Donors had drinks in the Grand Saloon, restored to its original splendour. Best of all, we had a builders and trades party, in the upper Rotunda. Sidney Smith’s original building turns out to be better than most people realised. This project asserts what was architectural about the 1897 building and also creates architecture in the bits that were previously just spaces.

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The bespoke furniture has arrived, and I have spent a happy hour arranging it in the members’ room. This has always been a hobby but never before have I helped to research and test the chair on which I sit. Some lucky staff have tried out the new café, eating more than usual in the interests of a soft opening. It is great to have the old building back and to see it made anew.

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The rationale of buildings comes and goes as they develop over time. The Caruso St John project puts coherence back into the architecture, and we have tried to do the same with the way the collection is hung and how it moves the visitor round the building. I have learnt, in my time working with Adam Caruso, that we share an interest in behaviour that is instinctive, and in underlying patterns of use. I have had the ambulant and the static viewer in my mind in the new layout: the Millbank project brings the visitor in at the right place and helps them to understand how the building functions.

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The logic of Tate Britain is becoming apparent again. The next few weeks will begin to tell us whether it works for everyone, and across the building as a whole. I’m looking forward to it.