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July 20, 2012 8:53 pm
Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall has become one of London’s most charismatic new public spaces; cavernous and infused with the sinister hum of the power-station machinery that still operates next door, a reminder that this remains a place about generation as well as regeneration. But unlike more conventional public spaces it has always been oddly lopsided, cut off from the city by a huge wall and opening out to the galleries and other public areas only on one side. Now that imbalance has been, at least in part, redressed by the opening of the Tanks.
These former oil storage drums have been converted to accommodate the kind of art that is growing in importance and prominence everywhere: indeed, they are billed as the world’s biggest dedicated performance art venue. They have been restored and re-purposed by the original architects of Tate Modern, Herzog & de Meuron, but with few of the flourishes with which they usually make buildings. Instead, this feels like a kind of anti-icon, a building with no outside, an appropriate non-monument (a nonument?) for an age of austerity.
But the idea that these tanks might have been a serendipitous find that barely needed anything more than a light clean is deceptive. This three-leaf clover of interlinking cylinders has been seamlessly connected to the Turbine Hall in a show of real architectural skill. Although the effect is of a continuous space, the trick has been in creating an internal concrete-contained landscape in which the junctions are smudged and uncertain. Architects tend to like to make a show of the joins, of the bridge – or the gulf – between new and old. Here Herzog & de Meuron have created a language of industrial concrete construction, of canted columns and strip-lights, rough repairs to existing fabric and an equally coarse treatment of new surfaces that purposefully blurs distinctions. This is as much the language of infrastructure as of industry. Huge curved cast-iron sections resemble massive sewer pipes or underground tunnels and the descent down the ramp make sense of this as a subterranean world which we can inhabit only at the cost of extreme engineering and heavy construction. It also disorientates. The lack of windows or easy reference points makes this a series of spaces in which artists can take control – the visitor is deposited in their hands.
It is interesting to compare the Tate Tanks with the Piranesian complexity of Paris’s newly expanded Palais de Tokyo, where architects Lacaton & Vassal stripped the structure of an old exhibition pavilion down to the raw concrete to reveal a complex and cavernous network of galleries and sinister new spaces in what appears as much a kind of urban archaeology as a conscious architecture. Just as at Tate Modern, new spaces were “found”, including an abandoned cinema. The language of stripped and bruised concrete and the kind of disorientation more familiar from cisterns or sewers than from cultural infrastructure begins to give the impression of art digging deep into the foundations of the city in an effort to dredge authenticity from place.
As global starchitects increasingly dominate the design of new museums, it is precisely that sense of place and the specific which can so easily be lost. Tate will, of course, have its tower too: Herzog & de Meuron’s £215m twisted pyramid is under construction and will radically alter the scale and presence of the institution. But until it is complete the Tanks represent an ingenious experiment in rooting the gallery deep into the underground context of an industrial city that now exists only as archaeology and memory. This is the architecture of London’s subconscious.
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