Since 2016, the millions of tourists who flock each year to Tate Modern, London’s most popular art museum, have been able to do something unusual: stare into the apartments opposite, as if they were artworks.
From a platform on the museum’s 10th floor built to offer panoramic views of the city, visitors could peer directly at dozens of luxury dwellings, all of which have floor-to-ceiling windows. Sometimes, nosy art lovers would catch a glimpse of a resident of the multimillion-dollar homes making breakfast or reading a weekend newspaper.
On Wednesday, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that tourists’ using the viewing platform was “a clear case of nuisance” even if ogling homeowners was not their purpose.
In a regal London courtroom, Lord Leggatt, the lead judge in the ruling, said that “hundreds of thousands of visitors each year” headed to the platform and many took photographs of the apartments. “It is not difficult to imagine how oppressive living in such circumstances would feel for any ordinary person — much like being on display in a zoo,” he said.
His 47-page ruling returned the case to a lower court “to determine the appropriate remedy.” If the two sides could not reach agreement, he said, it would be for that court to consider whether access to the platform should be restricted, whether Tate Modern should pay compensation, or whether some other proposal from the museum could solve the problem.
In a statement on Wednesday, Tate Modern said it thanked the Supreme Court “for their careful consideration of this matter,” adding that it could not comment further while the case was ongoing.
The ruling, which has been eagerly awaited since a two-day hearing in December 2021, overturned two lower-court decisions. In 2019, Justice Anthony Mann of the English High Court wrote that the properties in the four-tower development called Neo Bankside were architecturally impressive, but that buying properties with floor-to-ceiling windows had “a price in terms of privacy.” He suggested the owners install sheer curtains.
Later, the Court of Appeal also dismissed the apartment owners’ complaint, saying that this was a case of one property overlooking another and could not be considered a nuisance. “The law does not always provide a remedy for every annoyance to a neighbor, however considerable that annoyance may be,” it said.
In Wednesday’s ruling, Lord Leggatt and two other judges castigated those decisions, writing that the lower courts might have been reluctant “to decide that the private rights of a few wealthy property owners should prevent the general public from enjoying an unrestricted view of London and a major national museum from providing public access to such a view.”
The viewing platform was not a “common and ordinary” use of the museum’s land, it added. And it was wrong to suggest the apartment owners buy sheer curtains because it placed the responsibility on the victims to deal with the problem. “It is not an answer to a complaint of excessive noise to say that the victim should buy earplugs,” Lord Leggatt said in court.
After complaints from the residents, the museum tried to limit tourists looking at the apartments, shortening the viewing platform’s opening hours. Gallery assistants also began asking visitors to stop taking photographs of the properties.
In March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered museums across Britain, the viewing platform closed, too. With visitor numbers still far below prepandemic levels, it has yet to reopen.
The viewing platform, part of Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building, has made headlines worldwide for reasons other than the privacy dispute. A British teenager was sentenced to life in prison after throwing a 6-year-old child over the barriers that surround the edge of the platform in 2019. The victim, a French boy who was vacationing in London with his family, suffered life-changing injuries. The safety of the platform did not form part of the current dispute.
On Tuesday, museum visitors expressed mixed feelings about the case. Monika Hogova, 27, a tourist from Slovakia, glanced at the apartments with a look of horror when she saw realized they were only about 100 feet away. “Definitely I would not want to live there,” she said. “You could just watch me in my space!”
Other visitors took the museum’s side. Alan Hopkin, 76, a retired taxi driver, looked out of a window on the museum’s fourth floor at the apartments. They appeared empty, until he briefly witnessed a resident, without shoes, pad around a kitchen.
“It would be a great shame if they closed the platform,” Hopkin said, pointing out the apartment towers overlooked each other. The residents seemed “perfectly happy to have their rich neighbors looking at them, but they’re not happy to have hoi polloi at the Tate looking at them,” he said.
Paul Wallington, 60, a school chaplain, said he didn’t think the residents had a point, either. But, he added, he wouldn’t be gawping at their apartments. “If I wanted to look into people’s homes, there are other places I could do it,” he said. At museums like Tate Modern, he added, “I prefer to look at the art on the walls.”