This week saw the opening of London’s latest gallery dedicated to the display, screening and performance of contemporary art. Switch House at the Tate Modern is designed by Swiss architect Herzog & de Meuron, and is the result of a twelve-year scheme. The £260m extension to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s former Bankside power station is the largest cultural project in London since the British Library was opened in 1998.
Switch House is big, huge on this media unveiling day – visitors are made almost invisible by the sheer scale of this twisting and distorted, somewhat awkward, textured pyramid, clad in perforated lattice of brick and reaching high up into the sky. Inside is visually striking too, with its contrast of sensuous swirling concrete and sharp defined angles and edges. The robustness of the concrete used inside is softened by light elements entering through the perforated exterior brickwork. We recommend walking the ten floors to the viewing gallery – the journey itself is part of the charm as the staircase alters in form and proportion with the open platform offering panoramic views over London’s architectural past, present and future.
‘You don’t build museums for tomorrow, you build them for generations,’ said Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota at the inauguration. ‘This is going to be here for decades.’ He feels the aim of the gallery is to be local as well as global, and to forge relationships with communities here and worldwide. Tate Modern is a phenomenal success – with some five million annual visitors, it is the most visited modern art gallery in the world and Switch House will no doubt add to visitor numbers.
In an emotive speech that followed, new London Mayor Sadiq Khan pledged to create affordable artist studios throughout the city, clearly grasping the value this soft power offers London and the UK. ‘I’m putting culture at the very core of my policies, up there alongside housing,’ he followed. Khan said the gallery will inspire new audiences and add to London’s cultural pull. ‘I want to apply the Tate Modern thinking to how I approach my plans.’ Compelling words, and it will be interesting to see if he can achieve this.
Herzog & de Meuron’s intriguing space offers unexpected opportunities to exhibit art in new ways and for visitors to engage with art in a less formal manner with plenty of benches and quite spaces to hang out. ‘The horizontal configuration of the classical galleries in the Boiler House is now enhanced with the vertical boulevard of the new extension,’ explains Pierre de Meuron, ‘creating a kind of architectural topography through the building that will offer unexpected opportunities for both artists and curators to present art outside the official display areas of the gallery.’
This works well for Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, who is keen to continue her mission in transforming the gallery’s collection to embrace other mediums – film and performance – and widen the international and gender representation. ‘I am delighted to now have the space to show this broader story of modern and contemporary art to the public for free.’
There is criticism amongst some circles that institutions like Tate Modern are turning art exhibitions into spectacles, more concerned with attracting numbers with sensationalist shows rather than telling the story of art. Yet perhaps there is space for all kinds of creative interpretations and ventures. Tate Modern and Switch House are free public spaces designed to be inviting, choreographed to engage a wider public rather than a small elite, art lovers who frequent other galleries. This in itself is to be applauded.
Much of the success of the new Tate will be because of the building, the design, the architecture, the space. And London’s latest cathedral of culture certainly offers visual and visceral impact.
Switch House opened to the public today and will stay open until 10pm on certain night.
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