Transforming Tate Modern: an exclusive preview
The world’s most visited museum of modern and contemporary art will open a £260m extension next month. The FT’s architecture critic Edwin Heathcote takes a tour of the building with its architect, Jacques Herzog, and meets Tate director Nicholas Serota.
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed & edited by Richard Topping. Assistance from Corinne Macdonald.
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EDWIN HEATHCOTE: It's the world's most popular museum of modern and contemporary art. Five million visitors a year, yet only 20 years ago it was just the shell of a defunct power station on the banks of the Thames.
Now, Tate Modern has the Switch House, a 10-story, truncated, folded pyramid, clad in a perforated screen of over a third of a million bricks. It'll expand the museum by 60%, with more galleries, education spaces, and a panoramic terrace. It's the work of Swiss architects, Herzog and de Meuron, designers of the original conversion, which opened in 2000.
The area around it has changed radically since then. What was once a post-industrial landscape of derelict wharves and warehouses, interspersed with social housing, has become prime real estate. Tate Modern has been a key driver in the regeneration and subsequent gentrification.
At its heart, is the Turbine Hall, the brooding, cavernous volume once inhabited by the hulking machines, and now transformed into arguably London's greatest internal public space. It's a descent into a resurrected, dark, subterranean underworld. This is a venue for art on an industrial scale.
So Jacques, here we are in the new extension to Tate Modern. You started working on the building 22 years ago.
JACQUES HERZOG: Yeah.
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: How does it feel to come back and extend your own building?
JACQUES HERZOG: That's a very psychological question because, as you said, 22 years is a lot of time in everybody's life. And when we were announced the winners we were pretty young architects and very excited to get started to work on such a amazing project.
And now-- then later we were in a different position. We could do more things. We were more experienced but we were less naive. You develop, you become a different person. And nevertheless, you have to accept that what you've done and to take it further.
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: You refer to it as being a bit like a city that you have the square, and the tower, so I guess in a way it's a kind of urbanism, isn't it?
JACQUES HERZOG: Absolutely.
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: To carry on a building like this.
JACQUES HERZOG: Absolutely. We really love to use the enormous energy that was lying within this given industrial structure by the Giles Scott building. And I think even the new one has kind of a spirit that is remindful of the former power station.
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: The way you've chosen to articulate it, with this brick veil and the folds, it emphasises the height but it's quite a soft way of building, in a way isn't it. You talk about it as knitwear.
JACQUES HERZOG: Yeah. Yes, that was very important to have this soft, but also the robustness. You look in this floor you see these concrete trusses which are very powerful. Also the notion of a monument. It has some monumental scale but never should it be overwhelming.
We always tried our best to also provide intimate spaces, like in nature, under a tree, you know, that gives you a feeling of being protected. And not exposed and overwhelmed by standing in awe in front of, I don't know, some kind of religious monumentality. That was never, of course, the plan.
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: We see the bricks outside here out the window. Your original plans were glass, actually, when it was a glass tower, then you switched to brick but you talk about the brick as a fabric, as a veil.
JACQUES HERZOG: I think that now that one looks through and sees it from outside and from inside, I'm pretty happy that we made this change from glass, which would have been a material much closer to the business world outside. And clearly the Tate now makes one site, one coherent site, where the old parts and the new parts integrate into one thing.
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: With the old building, the power station, the way it addressed London was kind of curious, because it was a blank wall to the river and a blank wall to Southwark. This changes that orientation and makes it much more open, doesn't it as well.
JACQUES HERZOG: So Southwark, and the Thames, and central London will be connected and the Tate makes for a walkthrough. You can even walk through the Tate, which is a major museum, just as a normal passer by. You walk through it like through a piece of city. I think that's certainly part of the success of the Tate. It's open for everybody.
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: Well here we are on level five. We can see the old power station behind us. I guess the obvious place to start is, this is such a huge building, why did you need to extend?
NICHOLAS SEROTA: Well, we have 5 million visitors a year. We were expecting 2 million. Anyone who's been here on a weekend will know that the place is crowded with visitors. We've also got a growing collection and it's a collection which is now stretching across the world, not just Northwest Europe and North America. Not just British art, but looking at Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and we need space to show it.
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: What does the new building give you that the old one couldn't? What do you gain here?
NICHOLAS SEROTA: So we gain space. We also gain a great variety of spaces. So they range from the tank spaces in the basement that were originally the place where the power station stored oil. Raw, rough, concrete-lined spaces in which we can do performance and installation. To very refined gallery spaces on three levels, equivalent to the three levels in the original Boiler House.
You'll get a different sensation according to which part of the building you're in, which galleries you're in. And they'll be usable for different kinds of art. I think our whole idea about what can happen in a museum was changed by Tate Modern, and now we're going to have an opportunity to demonstrate just how rich those opportunities are.