The most stunning thing about Tate Britain’s £45m makeover – which opened today – is the glorious sliced aubergine spiral stairway (above, right) which, if it was an exhibit in the gallery, would put most modern sculpture to shame. Whether it works as a staircase is another matter. I worry that the narrowing of the steps towards the centre will lead to accidents as two-way traffic builds up. Tate Britain does art brilliantly but definitely has a staircase problem. The one inside the side entrance to the gallery had to be altered because so many were slipping on it and the one outside the side entrance looks nice but is one of the worst designed I have ever come across in terms of ergonomics. It thwarts all the natural rhythms of where your feet should land. Try it. Dare me to be wrong.
Fortunately, people don’t go to galleries to stare at staircases. But regulars do like a good Friends’ Room and here the Tate scores. The top of the stairway opens out onto a large circular cafe, a miniature whispering gallery of St Paul’s, with arm chairs and nooks and crannies where you can hide from humanity with your laptop. It is a huge improvement on the tiny former Friend’s Room which was a bit like dining in a liquorice allsort and it makes the basic single membership of £62 good value for money since it gives you free admission to shows, discounts on books and entrance to Friends rooms at other Tates including Tate Modern with its breathtaking views (oh, and free wi-fi). I love the new Friends Room at the British Museum – which combines a cafe downstairs with a contemplative space upstairs – and only to a slightly lesser degree the revamp at the Royal Academy. London is blessed to have such lovely Friends’ Rooms in its galleries. Truly gems.