Nicholas Serota: How galleries joined the space race

Taken from the Royal Society of Arts lecture given by the director of the Tate Gallery, in London
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The Independent Online

We intuitively understand that the physical character of the space in which we encounter a painting or sculpture can influence our appreciation of it. My understanding of the paintings of Ben Nicholson is linked to seeing them as a student in Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. It was then the home of Jim and Helen Ede, and now that it is a museum it remains largely unchanged in its careful arrangements of objects set in rooms with scrubbed wooden floors, white rugs and bleached cotton coverings. Nor can I divorce my response to the work of Patrick Heron from the impression of seeing it in his house, the paintings affected by the view of the garden and the brilliant, always changing light bouncing off the sea.

Of course, the character of the space is only one ingredient in the process of looking at art. Our response will also be conditioned by curatorial decisions about the structure of the display. Traditionally the museum is a place in which art is isolated from the world for study and contemplation. John Soane's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, central London, is a brilliant example of the way in which a passionate connoisseur and collector, who was also an architect, thought it appropriate to house his personal collection at the end of the 18th century. In the early 19th century a response to the newly perceived requirement for public rather than private contemplation resulted in a new building type: the public museum. Soane, at Dulwich, and Schinkel, in Berlin, established the top-lit, rationally ordered gallery or museum, and these models remained the favoured way of showing works for nearly 150 years.

As the 19th century proceeded and larger sheets of wired glass became available, the lantern-light solution favoured by Soane gave way to the more straightforward scheme of setting glass within the pitch of the roof. This became the ubiquitous way of providing top light and high, clear walls and is found in most of the larger galleries of the period. It is still favoured by many artists, including the majority who took part in a survey undertaken in preparation for the design brief for Tate Modern.

In the past decade a small number of architects have reinterpreted that classical ideal in a contemporary vein. Aldo Rossi's Bonnefanten museum, in Maastricht, has a rigorously symmetrical E-shaped plan with two long gallery wings set on either side of the central prong which contains a grand top-lit staircase, the library and other public facilities. The galleries are simple rectangles and squares arranged enfilade and lit by natural light through lay lights.

Herzog and De Meuron's gallery for the Goetz Collection, in Munich, completed in 1994, is a more radical departure from 19th-century models but maintains the principle of isolating the art from the daily life of the city. The two gallery floors are lit by clerestory light filtered through translucent panels. The plan provides a sequence of rooms all equally well illuminated within the constricted footprint given by the original garden pavilion building on the site.

The notion of the museum as the main exhibit is celebrated in . Guggenheim Museum, in Bilbao, where the building plays dramatically against nearby hills. The rooms are invariably large, cathedral-like spaces where, unfortunately, few domestic-scale works can survive. Only when works on the scale of Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipses fill the space can the architecture and the work of art achieve an uneasy equilibrium. Elsewhere the theatre of the architecture upstages most of the works on view. It will take a determined curatorial hand, working in concert with an artist, to capture the space for art.

In my view the most successful museums are those that fire the imagination by creating distinctive space and fill that space with carefully considered and intellectually stimulating juxtapositions of work.

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