19:06, April 22 383 0 theguardian.com

2017-04-22 19:06:06
See how the other half lives from the Tate’s balcony

In a short but compelling 2011 film in praise of Neo Bankside, a cluster of luxury apartment blocks, Kevin Spacey, then running the Old Vic, stressed their superb location, courtesy of the South Bank’s artistic assets, Tate Modern in particular. For any property enthusiast who combines a love of speculation with an equal passion for, say, Joseph Beuys, there could be, you gathered, no finer investment.

“I think it’s probably the most extraordinary stretch of cultural land that you’ll find anywhere in the world,” Spacey assured prospective neighbours, on behalf of the developers, British Land and Grosvenor. “And I can tell you it’s a remarkable place to live.”

Architectural models, along with the film’s digression on the popularity of Tate Modern (5m visitors a year), and the further 1m visitor surge expected with the Herzog & de Meuron extension, would have left buyers – and their lawyers – in no doubt of their investments’ covetable proximity to this venture and the crowds it would attract. “It is culture that unites us,” Spacey burbled – 100% wrongly, as it would it turn out – “so you gotta come on down and check it out.” Job done. Before long, the developers reported, cultural regeneration along the South Bank had helped attract “purchasers and investors from over 24 nations”.

It was a further selling point of these four girder-larded towers that they possessed, as well as sitting rooms with regular glazing, pointy spaces identified variously as “prows” and “innovative winter gardens”. These are the transparent wedge shapes whose interiors are visible from the ground, as well as the Tate extension’s viewing gallery. Like the glass lift shafts, their purpose was to “allow residents to take in the views all year round”. It followed, what with the proximity of the towers to each other and glass being see-through, that these containers would also allow residents to evaluate one another’s choices in lamps, coffee tables, telescopes, the latter’s purpose being, perhaps, to inspect pensioners in the gardens of the 18th-century almshouses cowering at Neo Bankside’s feet.

Exposure to high-net-worth voyeurs, along with the occupants of nearby office buildings, does not appear to trouble the investors and rentiers profiting from the public’s investment in the Globe, the South Bank and Tate Modern. Perhaps it’s speculation that unites them. In contrast, from early on, it seems to have astonished occupants that a combination of innovative prows and developer-touted intimacy with the Tate’s extension (“brush shoulders with some illustrious arty types”) would necessarily result in their being, while relishing their views, themselves visible from part of the extension’s viewing terrace.

Rather than celebrating a disappointing aspect of the extension – the lack of views in some of its public spaces – which shielded their assets from more sustained exposure, some residents complained about the visibility intrinsic to their apartment choices. The then director of Tate Modern, Sir Nicholas Serota, suggested that they invest in net curtains. A Lib Dem councillor called his suggestion “atrocious”. The Tate-visiting public had, she said, been letting itself down. “It’s an art gallery, people are supposed to be going to look at the art.” Precisely what many of us have always thought about St Paul’s Golden Gallery. Get down. It’s a church. People are supposed to be going there to pray.

Confirming that there are lessons here for any cultural institution with ambitions that might compromise the reverence due to privacy-loving curtain-haters whose profits are at stake, five allegedly afflicted residents have, as you’d expect in a high-net-worth protest, gone to law. Restricted gallery access is now demanded, on the Neo Five’s behalf, of the millions enjoying the Tate’s extension: a kind of protected view, but in reverse. “Cordons” are proposed. The right to a private and family life – yes, even in a glass box next to a viewing platform – has been invoked. In future, ambitious galleries might conclude, views are safest left, like the one from the top of the Shard, to those who can pay £30.95 a visit. Perhaps the wise gallery, like the new Design Museum said to be lurking behind luxury Kensington apartments, knows its place. Reviewing that complex, built on land that was once the Commonwealth Institute’s, the Observer’s Rowan Moore wrote: “Museum visitors will feel a bit like trespassers.”

Likewise, in future dealings with local authorities, developers of such luxury apartments might want to learn from the backstage demands of our shyer celebrities. Tom Cruise or Katy Perry-style planning riders could ban civilians from staring at the occupants, even when this might appear an unavoidable aspect of an adjacent viewing gallery.

The demand would be hardly more extreme, or outrageous, after all, than the arrangement whereby London’s council tenants can be forced out of inner-city estates, under cover of “regeneration”, thus freeing up valuable, publicly owned land that authorities sell to speculators building luxury homes for private, often international investors. Any token, affordable provision will, supposing it happens, be unaffordable. Entirely naturally, when combined with the soaring property prices guaranteed by London’s commitment to money laundering, this results in literally or effectively gated neighbourhoods, where UUHNWs (ultra-ultra-high-net-worth individuals) are about as likely as Katy Perry to be troubled by an UULNW person. If the public’s gaze is, on occasion, required, a supercar will, as visiting Qataris have established, rapidly do the trick.

No doubt the thousands of householders whose lives have been blighted by the unforeseen arrival of HS2 will be watching with interest as weeping investors account, in court, for oversights, during negotiations, which led to their lawyers missing the Tate extension, and its viewing platform, both on show in architectural plans and models.

Mysterious, too, is their belated recognition that their own properties are not, as the developers claimed, “iconic”, but “unremarkable”, this being their description of the withdrawn view. If that’s the clincher, maybe they should just quote the architecture writer Catherine Slessor, who described these slabs of swank, when they were, absurdly, shortlisted for the Stirling prize, as “cross-gartered silos of stratospherically priced non-dom accom depressingly emblematic of how London is turning into a coarser version of Paris (unaffordable core, atomised banlieues)”. Or its critics from Architects for Social Housing, protesting against Bankside’s withdrawal of on-site affordable units, a “very dangerous precedent for the mechanics of social cleansing in London”.

Then again, that’s exactly why continued views of Neo Bankside are the right of every Tate visitor. Since the place is without architectural merit, let occupiers hang nets in their prows. As for viewers: even without the pleasure of jeering at its winter gardens, the exhibiting up close of this flashy outcrop, entitlement memorialised in glass and steel, is the sole compensation for its existence. It shows what happens when developers run our cities. And also, incidentally, why you should never take housing advice from Kevin Spacey.