At first glance, the story looks like a classic neighborhood dispute. On the one hand, there are those who are frankly tired of their neighbors on the sidewalk opposite watching their homes, but refuse to put curtains on their windows to preserve their privacy. On the other, there are those who insist on taking in the view from their balcony, but can’t help but cast a few voyeuristic glances at the apartments across the street.
Except that the protagonists of this quarrel are not trivial: the case pits five wealthy Londoners who live in a luxurious glass apartment tower against one of the busiest museums in the English capital, the Tate. Modern Gallery, which receives half a million visitors each year. Its panoramic terrace, installed 34 meters high, offers visitors a breathtaking view of London… and its neighbors in the glass tower, located just 150 meters from the museum.
Like many neighborhood disputes, the case found a solution in court. Wednesday 1er February, after six years of a fierce legal battle, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled in this direction: it judges that the owners of luxury apartments located opposite the Tate Modern Gallery are confronted with a level of“visual intrusion” unacceptable, which is likely to constitute an invasion of privacy.
“An exceptionally intense visual exhibition”
To understand, you have to go back to 2012, when wealthy Londoners landed in the Bankside district, located on the right bank of the Thames, and invested in apartments which are worth for some up to 19 million euros. At this price, they benefit from one of the most beautiful panoramic views of the English capital, which they enjoy through large bay windows. A tranquility that will quickly be compromised by the work carried out by the Tate Modern Gallery. In 2016, the museum of contemporary art had a facelift and inaugurated a 21,000 m² extension designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, which includes a panoramic terrace.
The inhabitants of the luxury building are first dismissed twice by the courts
The inhabitants of the glass tower did not taste this new installation. In 2017, feeling spied on, five of them decided to file a complaint. They complain in particular of being subjected to “an exceptionally intense visual exhibition”, words of one of their lawyers, Tom Weekes, questioned by the Daily Telegraph. Others say they are photographed by dozens of museum visitors, with some pictures posted on social media. At this time, the former director of the Tate Modern Gallery, Nicholas Serota, gave local residents a simple answer: he asked them to“buy curtains”, explained the specialized site Artnet in 2018. Refusal of interested parties.
Without an amicable solution, the dispute is taken to court. The inhabitants of the luxury building were first dismissed twice by the courts, before the Supreme Court finally ruled in their favor after heated debates between the various judges who compose it. According to James Souter, a lawyer interviewed by the English daily The Guardianthree judges were in favor of this verdict, two others opposed it.
To justify this judgment, Judge George Leggatt considered that the observation terrace of the Tate Modern Gallery placed the plaintiffs “under constant observation [des visiteurs] for a good part of the day, every week”. “It’s not hard to imagine how oppressive it must be for any normal person to live in such circumstances”he said, comparing the situation of the plaintiffs to animals “exhibited in a zoo”. Other judges, in a minority, considered that apartment owners were able to “take normal protective measures”like putting up curtains.
Beyond the legal implications of such a judgment and the questions that the generalization of such reasoning to all neighborhood disputes would raise, the debate around this case has taken a political turn. “This is an incredibly damaging decision for the future of public space in urban areas”commented Oliver Wainwright, the architecture columnist of the Guardian.
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“This verdict favors the view of five wealthy owners to the detriment of that of millions of other, simple visitors. The refusal of a handful of individuals to install curtains will block access to one of the most beautiful viewpoints in the capital”, he lambasted. It is now up to the High Court, a court of first instance, to decide the consequences of this verdict. The Tate Modern Gallery could have to pay damages to the plaintiffs or even develop, or close, its terrace.