Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The decision by the British High Court was an abrupt end to a heavily publicized stand-off between private wealth and a public art institution.
Luxury flat owners who feel their privacy is invaded by a public viewing platform at London’s Tate Modern have only themselves to blame.
So said a judge at the British High Court Tuesday, at the end of a two-year-long court battle between the world's most visited modern art gallery and residents of a condo development that overlooks it. Since opening as an extension in 2016, Tate Modern’s eye-catching Herzog + De Meuron-designed Blavatnik Building has become famous for its top floor, daytime-only viewing gallery. It’s well-known not because of its impressive panorama of London landmarks, but for the unusually intimate views it offers in through the windows of a luxury residential complex called Neo Bankside, which lies directly opposite.
Residents at Neo Bankside, which welcomed its first residents in 2013, have been trying to get the offending section of the Tate’s viewing platform shut down since 2017. Yesterday’s verdict was nonetheless unequivocal: according to Justice Anthony Mann, people living in the overlooked apartments have to accept that their sometimes spectacular views “come at a price in terms of privacy.”
It’s an abrupt end to a case that has proved a heavily publicized stand-off between private wealth and a public institution, with each sphere fighting to preserve dominance of a narrowly confined space. On first glance, the verdict might seem a little harsh. Few people like the idea of being on display in their own homes, let alone (as the court noted had happened) having people wave at them, or even on very rare occasions make obscene gestures. Some residents complain that images of them in their own homes have turned up on Instagram, with some owners so upset by the attention that they have come close to avoiding the apartments altogether.
Feelings of sympathy for the residents nonetheless struggle to survive on first sight of Neo Bankside itself, a development that could scarcely scream “look at me” any louder without being constructed entirely from neon. The Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners-designed development, where apartments are currently going for up to $4.6 million (£3.5 million), has walls almost entirely constructed from glass, and the development’s six towers are covered in protruding “winter gardens” (i.e. glassed-in balconies) that bristle like porcupine spines. The building’s lower apartments are already so exposed to passers-by that looking through their windows feels quasi-pornographic.
As Justice Mann noted, the winter gardens were themselves envisaged by the architects as supplementary, quasi-outside spaces. Residents feel so on display because they have used these spaces as sitting rooms, a function for which they weren’t necessarily intended. Meanwhile, plans for Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building, with viewing platform clearly marked, were already public at the time that the apartments went on sale.
There’s been a heavy dose of schadenfreude to public attitudes to the case. Eyebrows have raised at the idea of the apartment residents being too fancy to put up sheer curtains or strategically place pot plants. There has been mirth at the apparent shock as people realize that windows you can see out of can also be seen into. All this aside, there’s a point to the affair that weighs heavily on Tate Modern’s side. This is an area that has become prestigious thanks to the influence of the public institution it hosts, not the wealthy people who later moved in next door. Without the prestigious gallery just across the road, it’s highly unlikely Neo Bankside would have ever been built.
That’s because the area has only very recently become a stomping ground for very wealthy (as opposed to merely wealthy) London property buyers. Even now, this class is still more likely to choose West London than the formerly working class, ex-industrial location of Neo Bankside, where the Tate Modern’s current building functioned as a power plant until 1981.
Just down the road, high-priced, spectacular apartments in The Shard were withdrawn unsold from the market, possibly because the kind of plutocrat who could afford them didn’t want to live in an office block in a still far-from-sparkling area. It’s thus the extreme proximity of a world famous art gallery that made Neo Bankside viable in its current location. The development’s winter gardens are so close to the gallery that they’re effectively breathing down its neck. It must feel a little uncomfortable that the gallery’s visitors are now, in a way, breathing back. It is still the Tate Modern that gives the area its heart, and its public facilities shouldn’t be hemmed in to spare apartment residents the annoyance of hanging curtains.