Tate Modern was created out of the old Bankside (Southwark) power station, a monumental piece of twentieth century industrial architecture, once full of furnaces, turbines and generators supplying a good chunk of London’s energy until 1981.
Built in phases between 1947 and 1963, Bankside Power Station was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, as was the still-derelict Battersea Power Station along the river, twin ‘industrial cathedrals’ on the banks of the Thames…
The expensive and inefficient power station was closed for some years whilst the government and local authorities tried to decide what to do with this massive white elephant of a building; officially ‘listed’ as a piece of Britain’s architectural heritage, it couldn’t be demolished or the fabric of the building substantially altered. Abandoned until 1994, the Tate Gallery optioned the site to house its’ international modern art collection with a generous ‘incentive’ of government and National Lottery money.
Well sited opposite St Paul’s Cathedral and in an historic area, next to the rebuilt Globe Theatre, it was attractive to authorities seeking to regenerate a run-down part of London.
A much-hyped architectural competition to convert the building followed, which brings us to the Tate Modern Gallery today.
The building consists of two main spaces. The Turbine Hall is a massive space, which succeeds in overwhelming even the largest sculptures (even of Anish Kapoor). It is currently empty, making a grand atrium for visitors entering from the West. Despite the replacement of the original roof with a long lightbox, I still find this space mostly oppressive on all but the brightest sunny days.
The adjacent boiler halls, over five floors, house the Tate’s permanent collection and visiting exhibits. The exhibition rooms are either a confusingly higgledy-piggeldy collection of random spaces, corridors and dead-ends, or a delightful maze of the unexpected, depending on your taste. It has affected which exhibits fill which spaces. The floors are linked by a set of large escalators on the main landings, which themselves have minor exhibits and children’s’ activities in the ‘pods’ overlooking the Turbine Hall.
This is where the layout fails. Fill these spaces with a London summer season crowd and all the escalators, corridors and doorways quickly become congested. Such a massive building and yet all the activity gets corralled into tight areas unable to contain the footfall! Early mornings, late entry and lunchtimes turn it into a chore. Don’t even consider the cafe and shops at the busiest times, jammed as they are into a mid-floor jumble of walls or the basement.
You could call it subtle or subdued, but the permanent artificial light sometimes clashes with the natural light coming in from the Northern windows on some floors, whilst the internal walls and doorways create pools of gloom at certain times of day.
What this means is that parts of the collection are frequently seen at less than their best.
I can’t help thinking that more than a dozen years after opening, we’re still struck by the monumental scale of the building and blinded to its’ faults.
Certainly a modern art collection of such importance as the Tate deserves a large, modern setting. I am not convinced Bankside is it. Perhaps the problem is the very scale of a structure not comfortable with its change of use. I am also unsure of the conversion itself, the layout compromised by the structure and the contrasting décor in various spaces attempting to cover up the least attractive bits of industrial utilitarianism.
In the gallery spaces which do work, you find high ceilings, large expanses of neutral walls and the occasional dramatic entry through the elegant wooden doors. But you keep being drawn back to the cathedral nave of the Turbine hall and wondering what bold plan might have incorporated a floating mezzanine floor, more ‘space-age’ glass-fronted pods, internal pavilions in steel and polypropylene – all of which you can find in gallery spaces around the world.
Instead what we have is rather compromised, a bit drab, a bit dreary, a bit British. RC
Tate Modern Turbine Hall by Gurkan Sengun, Creative Commons
Tate Modern, Millenium Bridge by Reservas de Coches, Creative Commons