Tate Modern, housed in a former 1950s power station on the south bank of the river Thames has, since its opening in 2000, become a visual marker on the London skyline, along with the London Eye, the Gherkin and Big Ben. The much-anticipated extension to Tate Modern, called the Switch House in deference to the building’s original purpose, rises like a 21st-century ziggurat next to the original building and creates a close dialogue with its neighbor through the use of similar materials (brick cladding, concrete). Thin vertical windows in the new galleries echo those of the original building, allowing visitors views into the original giant Turbine Hall or across London’s ever-changing skyline.
Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the architects who designed the original Tate Modern, the building is startling with its twisted pyramidal external shape and spacious galleries and public areas within. Visitors enter via the basement tank room, where the oil to fire the power station was originally stored, and one is immediately struck by the rawness of the concrete structure and the over-sized pillars and struts, which remind one of the building’s original purpose and also recall the monumental scale of an ancient temple.
But this building is no self-conscious “temple to art”. The floors of the building are connected by elegantly curved concrete staircases and well-proportioned walkways and balconies. At the very top of the building there is a viewing balcony with a breath-taking 360-degree panorama London, while inside is a coffee bar, encouraging visitors to linger in this a high-rise eyrie.
The Switch House adds 60% more exhibition space and the new public galleries are lofty and spacious. These are not soulless white cubes, but dramatic top-lit spaces which allow the visitor to view the art works without distraction. Temporary walls, apertures and over-sized doorways offer long vistas of the works on display. The organization and layout of these spaces suggest that even when the gallery is busy, visitors can enjoy personal and intimate interactions with the artworks. Up on the second floor, Carl Andre’s infamous “Equivalent VIII”, often affectionately called simply “The Bricks”, floats serenely on the pale unpolished wood floor. In another space sits a miniature Algerian hillside town, constructed entirely from couscous. Throughout the space one encounters more work from outside western Europe and the USA, more performance and more work by women (most obviously evidence by the Artist’s Room dedicated to the French artist Louise Bourgeois). And the innovative Tate Exchange will offer artists and associates to program a new space to explore wider social issues through art and open up the museum – and the world of art – to new audiences.
Down on the ground floor, there is space for performance art, while on all the floors of the building there are spaces dedicated to learning and interpretation, socializing and dining. Furniture designed by Jasper Morrison completes the interior and complements the varied architecture of the galleries and concourses. Two new public squares have been developed around the site as well as a large piazza opening out from the new southern entrance.
The Switch House links back to the original Boiler House via a new bridge on the fourth floor, currently graced by a giant tree sculpture by Ai Wei Wei. Over in the original Tate Modern, a complete re-hang of the free collection has taken place offering, featuring over 800 works by over 300 artists from over 50 countries. Much-loved masterpieces by Picasso, Rothko, Matisse and Pollock are joined by recent acquisitions to expand the history of modern art. The Tate is already an incredible success story and Switch House represents a significant and vibrant new contribution to London’s cultural landscape.
Date visited 14th June 2016