Residents overlooked by Tate Modern extension should 'get net curtains'

Tate director Nick Serota suggests solution for Neo Bankside tenants who don’t want to make an exhibition of themselves

You have paid £4.5m for a luxury London flat with floor to ceiling windows and glorious views across the Thames to St Paul’s Cathedral. So do you want to put up net curtains?

Residents in the block Neo Bankside should consider it if they want their privacy to be maintained, the director of Tate Sir Nicholas Serota said on Wednesday.

They are the nearest neighbours to Tate Modern’s £260m Switch House Extension; some are little more than 20 metres away and they have found themselves directly overlooked by visitors to Tate Modern’s 10th floor viewing gallery which opened in June.

Switch House and surrounding area

On Wednesday, Serota, the director of Tate, said there was a simple solution open to residents. He said privacy would “be enhanced if those people decided that they might put up a blind or a net curtain or whatever, as is common in many places”. He added: ”I need to repeat the fact that clearly people purchasing those flats were in no doubt that Tate Modern was going to build its new Switch House building and the character and uses of that building were widely known. People purchased with their eyes wide open.”

Serota said Tate had put up signs encouraging visitors “not to gesticulate, to recognise that people who live nearby have a right to some privacy”.

The residents are undeniably overlooked. The 10th floor viewing gallery offers panoramic views of London but the most startling view on the south-west side is the beautiful, spotlessly clean interiors of the flats.

It is a sensitive subject for those living in Neo Bankside: all the residents approached by the Guardian spoke only on condition of anonymity.

“When we moved in, the entire side [of the Tate Modern] was covered and it was under construction, so we didn’t know how bad the situation was going to be,” said one resident.

“When it did open, I realised there was a window right outside ours. It was a surprise … We’re renting, but if we had purchased it we would be really upset.”

The Neo Bankside building seen from the viewing deck on the 10th floor of the new Switch House building at the Tate Modern. Signs have been erected by Tate Modern asking visitors not to photograph their neighbours.
The Neo Bankside building seen from the viewing deck on the 10th floor of the new Switch House building at the Tate Modern. Signs have been erected by Tate Modern asking visitors not to photograph their neighbours. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Another resident entering the lobby with two children said the living room of her rented flat faced directly on to the restaurant. “It’s quite horrible,” she said. “At first, we thought it may be offices or something else there … It’s really bad, because I have young girls and there are strangers looking in. It’s no fun … I counted 50 people looking at me when I was in my house.”

She kept the blinds down much of the time, she said, but this made the flat very gloomy. The flat’s owners had been unaware of the issue when they bought it, she said, adding: “I feel like I’m on display all the time.”

Another resident pointed out that the flats were overlooked by other buildings, too. “I used to live on the first floor over there,” she said, pointing to a Neo Bankside building at the back of the development. “Literally everybody from the Blue Fin building [offices just behind the Tate Modern] could see in anyway. All the residents can see into each other’s flats. You’re living in a goldfish bowl.”

She said: “If you buy a flat with so much glass and think you’re buying privacy, you’re stupid. I think people are being a little hysterical.”

The Southwark Liberal Democrat councillor, Adele Morris, has tried to help broker a solution. She called Serota’s comments an insult, saying: “I think that is an atrocious comment for a man of his stature and his position to make. A director of a big, public institution making a flippant comment like that about something which he knows is directly affecting people’s lives and their privacy.

“Would he be saying the same thing if it was a council flat? Is it to do with the presumption that these people are rich and they get what they deserve buying a flat like that? I don’t agree with that, I think everybody is entitled to a certain amount of privacy.”

Morris helped set up a meeting between Tate, the building’s architects Herzog and de Meuron, Southwark council and the developers Native Land, to try to come up with a solution. None could be agreed and Morris’s idea of having strategically placed planters, to deflect attention from the flats, was rejected.

She said it was clear that some gallery visitors were not pointing their cameraphones only to sights like Big Ben – they were zooming in to people’s homes.

“It is the behaviour of people which has taken everybody by surprise,” said Morris. “There are certain points on that balcony where there isn’t much to see apart from directly into the flats. People didn’t realise there would be such a problem. They didn’t realise how people would use the viewing balcony. They knew it was there but I don’t think they thought for one minute this would happen because, after all, it’s Tate; it’s an art gallery, people are supposed to be going to look at the art.”

Morris said she did not think it was Tate Modern’s fault but now the problem had arisen and it was making residents’ lives miserable. She said Tate should not appear to condone the situation.

The Neo Bankside building, where some of the flats worth millions of pounds can be viewed from the viewing deck on the 10th floor of the new Switch House building.
The Neo Bankside building, where some of the flats worth millions of pounds can be viewed from the viewing deck on the 10th floor of the new Switch House building. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

A flat in the block costs in the region of £4.5m. The final available penthouses are being marketed at £5.95m. The residents so far have chosen to remain anonymous and talk of legal action may be premature, although Morris said she was aware that “legal people are talking to legal people”.

Tate is declining to make any changes to its viewing terrace which is open to 6pm for five nights and 10pm Friday and Saturday. In a statement, it said: “The Viewing Level is an intrinsic part of the free public offer of the new building, providing a 360-degree experience that is virtually unique to London. Since the very first plans were drawn up in 2007, we have been through an extensive consultation and planning process and have maintained an ongoing dialogue with local residents.

“At no point during this process were any concerns raised regarding the viewing platform. There is signage encouraging the public and visitors to use it respectfully and responsibly.”

Native Land said: “We are aware that public use of the new viewing gallery of the Tate Modern’s Switch House has caused concern over the privacy of some of the residents of Neo Bankside, whose apartments can be seen by visitors.

“While development of Neo Bankside had already begun when plans for the new gallery were submitted to the authorities, potential buyers at Neo Bankside had access to marketing material which showed the location of the planned viewing gallery. A model showing the planned Tate extension in context to Neo Bankside was also available. We, the Tate and Southwark council are liaising with the affected residents and neighbours to consider the concerns raised.”


Mark Brown and Alice Ross

The GuardianTramp

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