Switch House opens at Tate Modern

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.

Nargess Banks

Switch House opened to the public today and will stay open until 10pm on certain night.

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Designed in China

How do you change the perception of ‘made in China’ to ‘designed in China’? Chinese contemporary art is currently the focus of intense interest in western Europe, so why not Chinese design? Two exhibitions in London aim to rectify this. Unfolding Landscape, at Sotheby’s in London, which finished last week, exhibited work for sale by graduates from Beijing’s prestigious design school, The China Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Across town in west London, Liliane Fawcett has curated China Design Today at her Notting Hill gallery Themes and Variations. It features a number of commissions made in collaboration with Chinese designers of the post-Mao generation.

Fawcett has gathered designers that reveal very different approaches to what constitutes Chinese design. On her travels to China in search of designers she found a mix of avant-garde, computer-generated work that was almost rejecting its ancient Chinese roots and others who incorporates local Chinese traditions into their work.

China Design Today at her Notting Hill gallery Themes and Variations until December 8, 2012.

Read our review of Ai Weiwei’s Serpentine Pavilion here.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | www.d-talks.com | Bookshopwww.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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Ai Weiwei’s 100m Sunflower Seeds

The latest installation to fill the enormous Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern is an inch-thick carpet made of over a hundred million tiny artworks collectively knows as Sunflower Seeds. Each intricately handcrafted porcelain sunflower seed carries its own unique note delivered by the skilled craftsmen of Jingdezhen.

AAi Weiwei portrait - Photo© Tate Photography ©Ai Weiwei

Sunflower Seeds is the work of Ai Weiwei and the eleventh in the Unilever Series to fill this challenging space at the London gallery. The Chinese artists is best known for his work on the Bird’s Nest Stadium at the Beijing Olympics and for his constant conflict with his government who has arrested and beaten the artist and censored his work.

Sunflower Seeds is splendidly simple in concept, yet completely grand in execution. Ai had 1,600 former makers of imperial porcelain in the town of Jingdezhen work on his project for two years to create 150 tons of handcrafted ceramic covering 1000 square meters.

Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds 2010 - Photo ©Marcus Leith & Andrew Dunkley for Tate Photography ©Ai Weiwei

Additionally, the seeds carry multiple meanings – Mao Zedong depicted himself as the sun and at the same time during the Cultural Revolution when food was scarce, sunflower seeds were plenty.

Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds at the Turbine Hall Tate Modern @Andrea Klettner

Ai wanted the public to walk on his installation, to feel and hear the crunch of the seeds. Sadly, dust raised by the feet of visitors on the first few days, created health and safety issues and the site has since been closed off to the public. This is a real shame, but it is also the very nature of public art.

Viewing it from behind the barrier, Ai’s Sunflower Seeds is forbidden territory, which perhaps adds a new dimension to his message.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks & Andrea Klettner

Sunflower Seeds 2010 by Ai Weiwei is on until  2 May 2011 at Tate Modern.

A series of video booths installed in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern allow visitors to record questions and comments for the Ai Weiwei. Each week until May 2011, the artist will be selecting new videos to respond to and recording his answers.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | www.d-talks.com | Bookshop www.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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