Tate Modern’s new Switch House — review

Switch House seen from the south. Photo: Iwan Baan

It’s not often that architects get to revisit their own blockbusters. Partly that’s because blockbusters can be difficult to change. They arrive as faits accomplis, grand gestures conceived as fully-formed objects or sculptures in their own right. Tate Modern was never like that. A defunct power station turned into a museum by Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron in 2000, this strange industrial-cultural hybrid always maintained more than a sense of its past. The slightly sinister hum that enveloped the cavernous Turbine Hall was the sound of the transformers in the switch house still attached, an aural echo of the remains of a former life. Its final nature was revealed slowly as layers were peeled back, dark depths excavated and surfaces stripped away.

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Its life so far has been a kind of archaeological architecture. When the generating machines were removed from the Turbine Hall a new subterranean level was revealed, making the space feel deeper, grander. It entailed an entry via a downward sloping ramp, an echo of a buried tomb or the burial chamber of a vast pyramid.

The next phase of the excavation saw the uncovering of the underground oil tanks — dark drums whose concrete casing exuded an acrid, powerful odour. But now the digging is over. Tate Modern has sucked the power of the past up from below ground to create one of the world’s most memorable and monumental museums of modern art — and its most popular.

Lower ground floor, Switch House. Photo: Iwan Baan

The neighbourhood too has changed beyond recognition. Once a dysfunctional urban leftover of abandoned industry spotted with incongruous brick-built boxes of social housing, it is now a dysfunctional skyline of luxury towers, glassy offices and asset apartments with river views.

The effect was not the fault of the museum. This was not a building that leaked gentrification. In fact its dark power was completely contained, its massive brick walls sealing its enigmas shut. But that isn’t how modern museums are meant to work. It is demanded that they engage with communities, present themselves as accessible, reveal not conceal. The next phase of the building’s life responds to those needs yet manages to maintain the building’s essential character, the sense of a place that is fortified but which also opens up a route through from the Turbine Hall into the urban tissue behind.

The most visible response to the museum’s new context of glassy towers comes in the form of a massive perforated brick tower. It rises from a trefoil of terraces defined by great curving walls, which reveals the circular shapes of the oil tanks beneath. These walls, which also form the base of the public terraces above, are a deep muddy brown pocked with aggregate, more densely towards their base. They look extruded from the earth, almost more like mud than concrete. The bricks that make the tower are lighter than their neighbours on the power station, yet with the perforations between them and the shadows they ensure the tone matches and mingles. I can’t help thinking the veil of brick (Jacques Herzog refers to it rather charmingly as “knitwear”) looks the perfect place for pigeons but am assured the holes are just too shallow.

Switch House’s perforated brick exterior. Photo: Iwan Baan

The tower is tall yet squat and curiously formed, gently folded, slotted and tapering. The fold and the sharp edge make it appear slimmer and taller, emphasising its height. It is the brick tower that is the motif for the project but it’s only one component.

This extension effectively doubles the institution’s gallery space. The old galleries, which always felt a little underscaled after the cavern of the Turbine Hall, are complemented here by three storeys of new art space running parallel to the power station. Most impressive are the huge new galleries on the fourth floor spanning above the Turbine Hall. Top-lit (although not for this opening exhibition) and with slots for orientation in the city they are lofty and impressive, easily capable of housing everything from massive sculptures to epic paintings yet still able to allow the viewer an intimate encounter with the artworks — something the old building didn’t always achieve. They provide the city with something it has never really had, massive space for massive art. Everything from the untreated oak floor to the concrete ceiling feels right, in scale, material and finish, always deferring to the art yet tough enough to stand up as autonomous empty space. Two other levels of galleries below create the heart of the new extension.

There is plentiful education space, a new ninth-floor restaurant, a shop and a bar and café at street level and an impressive viewing gallery on the top (10th) floor, a new public forum in the sky to counter the chthonic Turbine Hall beneath. The views are wonderful, taking full advantage of the position on an axis with the dome of St Paul’s. This, like its predecessor the Turbine Hall below, is allowed to feel like a genuinely civic space.

Viewing gallery. Photo: Iwan Baan

Unusually this is also a building which revels in its own connective tissue. The stairs, the paths between galleries and the routes around the building take in some stunning spaces formed in an architectural language that is rich, generous and tactile. You want to run your hand along the concrete, stroke the curves of the benches, to lean your elbows over the broad edges of landings and terraces. It is an intriguing cocktail of rough and comfortable, tough and inviting. The slope of the façades impinges in the form of canted concrete columns which give the interiors an expressionistic air, a hint of structural angst and wonky Caligari shadows that make for fascinating glimpses and irregular volumes.

The new work has made this arguably the most accommodating gallery of modern and contemporary art in the world. The tanks were the world’s first spaces on such a scale dedicated permanently to performance art, and the museum has adapted to the variety of intimacy and scale embodied in contemporary art practice. While huge structures like New York’s new Whitney and San Francisco’s SFMoMA extension create urban scale and epic (if occasionally rather corporate) space, Tate Modern’s interior somehow embodies an urban complexity, from the subterranean to the skybound, which more fully encapsulates the conditions of the contemporary city. It spans the darkness and the light, the rough and the smooth, the archaeological and the futuristic.

The new phase completes the work that the architects started to work on in 1994. Twenty-two years is a long time in contemporary architecture and fashions change fast, yet this now feels like an institution that has evolved. Herzog & De Meuron refer to it as an “organism”, in which the parts are clearly different yet have a common genetic code. From an urban point of view what they have achieved here is quite remarkable. They have managed to integrate the former power station into the city and streets behind while maintaining its sense of presence and difference.

More importantly they have created a clearly civic space, both visibly an organic element of the city and one which distinguishes itself from its surrounding fast-changing, glassy skyline. At £260m, this is an expensive project. Yet it feels anything but elitist: this is an open building in which the luxury is that it is ours.

Opens June 17, tate.org.uk

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