Conceived in the 1980s to reflect the work of artists including Ben Nicholson and to mimic the gasworks it was going to replace, the Tate St Ives gallery is now the main landmark in the small Cornish town that became home to so many renowned artists from the early 20th century onwards.
When the gallery originally opened in 1993, over 120,000 people visited in the first year: many more than had been anticipated. More recently, annual visitor numbers have approached 250,000. By the turn of the new century it was clear that Tate St Ives simply didn’t have room for everyone. Queues often formed. The gallery had to be closed every time it hung a major new exhibition.
Tate St Ives clearly needed to address the problem: to modernise and expand its facilities. Initially, however, the gallery’s plans to create new above-ground space met with strong opposition from local residents. The only answer was to dig deep and hide any new developments in the cliffs below.
Two parallel projects were conceived. The first involved refurbishing the original gallery spaces. The second created a 1320m2 largely subterranean extension featuring a spectacular, column-free exhibition space buried into the cliff alongside the 1993 building – lit by huge skylights – as well as a roof garden, offices, a loading bay, visitor facilities and a new studio dedicated to caring for the permanent collection.
Above the new gallery space, 16.5 metre long concrete beams – cast in situ – support the glazed roof. The area is flooded with uniquely warm coastal light that first drew artists including Nicholson, sculptor Barbara Hepworth and ceramicist Bernard Leach to St Ives.
In all, some 5,000m3 of material was excavated from the site, in 977 lorry loads. And the frame contractor brought in 3,200 tonnes of concrete, reinforced with over 250 tonnes of steel, to create the new spaces over the course of more than a year.
Despite this, the construction team managed to ensure that original gallery remained open for much of the build, closing only for structural works during the winter.
Three years after starting work, BAM handed over the project to widespread acclaim. Tate St Ives has gone on to win numerous awards, and reviews from public, the press and the construction trade have been overwhelmingly positive.
BAM’s connection with the Tate goes back over a century. The company was the main contractor for the original Tate Britain building on London’s Millbank, in 1893. Since then, BAM has built up extensive experience working on the construction and refurbishment of many of the UK’s most iconic museums and cultural buildings.