Café culture

Museums and galleries are finally making full use of their dramatic interiors. They have commissioned top creatives to create spaces that are as stimulating as the exhibits on show. Naomi Coleman pays them a visit

IT IS hard to ignore the cultural buzz in London at the moment, as new museums and galleries open their doors for the very first time, unleashing a new lease of cultural life. With options such as Tate Modern, Somerset House, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing to choose from, it’s easy to understand why London has become the happening capital of Europe. Each one has something fresh to offer besides art, whether it’s an outside café, renovated restaurant, or informal bar, making it part of a new summer design trail.

One reason for their success is the public’s greater involvement with cultural buildings. At the heart of this relationship is a social focus engendered by sleek, stylish bars, restaurants and cafés inextricably linked to a museum or gallery. These public spaces add a new dimension that serves art well, but they also act as a forum for social activity.

“With the rise of the city as a centre for social activity, people are making greater use of public spaces as places to hang out,” says architect Rick Mather, responsible for The Wallace Collection’s Café Bagatelle and the Picture Gallery Café at Dulwich Picture Gallery. “This is happening with museums and galleries too. The whole idea is to get people to congregate in public buildings so the public sees [these attractions] as part of their lives, rather than just a special event.”

By using a cultural building in this way, it becomes less of an institution, and more of a public place to linger over coffee, have lunch or enjoy a drink. This social-led concept is being adopted by a whole string of new cultural centres looking to attract a wider audience. In a survey carried out by Dulwich Picture Gallery, most visitors felt a café was needed. “Nowadays, gallery visitors usually bring friends. Going round a gallery probably takes an hour or so, but most people want to simply enjoy the environment,” says Kate Knowles, marketing director at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Since its opening in May, Tate Modern has attracted 19 000 visitors a day, from students and tourists to Londoners of all ages. People come for the art, the terraces, the views, the informal caf̩s-cum-bars and the shops Рnot necessarily in that order.

Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron agree that cultural buildings now demand a different kind of creative energy. “In the future this will be an increasingly important issue in European cities. Tate Modern is a contemporary building, a building for everybody, a building of the 21st century.”

As the new millennium kicks off, it seems that cohabitation of design and art in public spaces is here to stay. Galleries, museums and cultural buildings are set to become not only venues for cultural stimulation, but the new places to hang out.

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