Tate Modern – the museum was very keen to drop ‘the’ from its official name - is the embodiment of the wave of change, geographical as well as cultural, that London has gone through in the last two decades. For centuries the city has been sharply divided between north and south of the river. London’s financial, legal, religious and political institutions were all on the north side. The south felt like the city’s poor relation. Southwark, the long neglected borough in which Tate Modern is located has a medieval cathedral, and was the site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but for generations it has felt like a kind of Ciudad Juárez, El Paso’s Mexican twin on the south bank of the Río Grande, a place where affluent northerners go to behave badly, a magnet for polluting industries and some of the less savoury aspects of urban life.
The huge popular success of a major national cultural institution in what was once a pocket of dereliction has played an important part in breaking down that division in London. The Tate has drawn new life and investment into the area. Culturally Tate has been equally important. Its long serving director, Nicholas Serota, got the job in 1988 on the basis of a brilliant analysis of the Tate’s strengths and weaknesses. Its original site, a 19th century building on Millbank, simply was not big enough for it to fulfil its dual role of being the primary collection of British art while addressing modern and contemporary art. Brushing aside questions of whether contemporary British artists would rather be shown in a British context or in a modern collection, Serota’s plan was to divide the collection in two. Millbank became Tate Britain, and the new building on Bankside was named Tate Modern.
Tate Modern has played an important part in London’s emergence as a major international centre for contemporary art, and in the unexpected embrace of art by a mass audience in Britain. Before Tate Modern opened, Britain’s mass media adopted a uniformly scornful tone in its coverage of contemporary art. When the Tate first began planning to take on the redundant Bankside power station, the editor of the The Times ridiculed the idea and insisted that it would have no appeal to the general public, that “it would be showing the dirty underpants kind of art.” Far better to make it a museum dedicated to the achievements of the 19th century, he argued. Such a view was merely an echo of the equally scandalised reaction to the Tate’s acquisition of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII
, a stack of 120 firebricks. The Tate itself has had to overcome the difficult legacy of a prewar director who refused to recognise Picasso, Dali, Moore and Brancusi as serious artists.
Despite the scepticism, the reality has been astoundingly different. From the outset of Tate Modern’s opening it has attracted football stadium- sized crowds of up to 5 million each year. London’s art world had once been confined to its art schools, in which artists survived by teaching and there were pitifully few private collectors of their work. The opening of the original Tate Modern coincided with the start of a boom in the market for contemporary art. A number of lavishly funded commercial galleries, including the White Cube and Gagosian, were established. London’s auction houses have become major players in international sales for new and modern art. The Tate had once been overshadowed by the Museum of Modern Art in New Yor, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, both of which have stronger collections of what might be described as ‘classic’ modern art. Tate Modern changed that relationship, thanks to the way that it understood and showed contemporary art. It began to collect art from Africa and Asia, it showed more work by women, it championed performance art.
Tate Modern has also transformed London’s attitudes to contemporary architecture. At the time of their first appointment, more than twenty years ago, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were a far from obvious choice. Many establishment architects from a still insular Britain would have had trouble naming a single one of their relatively limited number of buildings. Since the success of Tate, London has been notably more welcoming to outside talent.
Tate Modern created one of the most impressive spaces for contemporary art installations in the world. The old Turbine Hall, stripped of its machinery, had its debut with a Louise Bourgeois spider, which was followed by Olafur Eliasson, Anish Kapoor, and Ai Weiwei. The space encouraged ever more work that proved enormously popular for the crowds and instrumental in introducing artists to a wide public.
But their decision to leave this heroic space open reduced the scope available to Herzog and de Meuron to introduce more variety to the character of the conventional galleries. The numbers of visitors were both a measure of success and a problem. Galleries that are constantly full of crowds are not necessarily the best spaces to experience art. The need to provide more space became a pressing part of the Tate’s plans, and Herzog and de Meuron were commissioned to plan an extension to their original building more than a decade ago. The latest extension increases the size of Tate Modern by 60 per cent. Its opening on June 17, a week before Britain’s referendum on continued membership in the European Union has taken on an important symbolic significance. Its new galleries show 250 works by artists from 50 countries. It is an assertion of London’s openness and a rejection of insularity. The physical presence of Tate in a rapidly changing London was also important.
When the original Tate Modern opened, Bankside was a run-down enclave. The area now has been comprehensively rebuilt. New, mainly glassy buildings have erupted all around the gallery. There is a cluster of apartment towers from Richard Rogers’s firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, to the west and a large office complex designed by Allies and Morrison to the south. And new skyscrapers are rising on all sides. Much of this has been made possible by a rise in land values caused by the presence of the Tate, a rise from which the gallery has not benefitted. But the presence of those towers has helped shape the new extension. When Tate Modern opened, the only signal of the old power station’s new purpose was the glass box, running the length of the roof of the original building accommodating restaurants and members’ rooms. The new development is a much more conspicuous presence that erupts from behind the brick cliff of the original building. It has three distinct elements. Below ground are the three storage tanks for the fuel used by the power station, now used as galleries for performance and installation art. Their presence is marked on the surface by the landscaping of the outdoor terrace to the south of the turbine hall. To the southwest of the original turbine hall is a twisted brick pyramid ten floors high. It is visible from across the river as a riposte to the towers clustering around it. The extension has to deliver a whole series of new things to the complex. Linking the pyramid and the underground tanks to the original Tate is a new southern entrance to the museum, connecting the museum to its hinterland where once it turned its back. The pyramid accommodates a series of handsome new rectilinear galleries on its lower four levels. The upper levels contain studios, learning spaces, offices, restaurants, and, at the top, an open air terrace offering the public a spectacular view of the emerging new London. The long drawn out process of fundraising for the new building gave Herzog and de Meuron the time to reconsider their first idea of facing the new extension from cast glass. They came to see glass as associated with commercial buildings, and instead designed what they called a brick veil to signal a different purpose. The colour is similar to that of the brick used for the power station, but the proportions and the materiality of the brick that Herzog and de Meuron use is very different. The brick is a screen in which every second brick is omitted, allowing daylight into the interior. The edges of the pyramid reveal a sharply delineated pattern of intersecting bricks. The inner face is glazed, but because the screen is a loose fit with the rectangular gallery spaces, there is plenty of scope for circulation areas that wrap around them, within the brick envelope. These spaces are enlivened by the glimpses of the outside world offered by large windows cut into the outer skin, and also by internal voids that rise four levels where floor slabs stop short of the brick skin. It is connected to the old building by a high-level bridge that spans the turbine hall, and a soaring concrete spiral ramp provides a memorable introduction to the building for visitors.
The new galleries are designed to offer a range of very different spaces. The oil tanks, treated as subterranean found space, are the most impressive because they are so unlike a conventional white box gallery. But the four levels above them all have different lighting systems and proportions. Only the untreated oak floor that runs through all the gallery spaces provides a unified visual connection. It is a welcome variety that allows visitors to experience a wide diversity of spaces appropriate for the art contained within them. It helps visitors to orient themselves and avoid visual fatigue as they progress through the building.
The original Tate Modern was a key project for Herzog and de Meuron, establishing them internationally. It has been battered by the tramp of millions of feet over the years, but its fundamental conception has stood the test of time. The new addition takes its palette of materials and its treatment of found space from the turbine hall, and provides an injection of new energy and spatial dynamics. In a London that has grown accustomed to a constant flow of new buildings, this is one that stands out for the impressive combination of intellectual rigour and material invention.