TATE Modern Switch House Extension

I am a bit sore, and definitely a little bit smelly. I really should have put on a clean t-shirt this morning, rather than sniffing the one I was wearing yesterday. And the reason for my aching thighs and stinky pits? I spent my entire visit to the Switch House climbing and descending the stairs because of the speed of the lifts, or rather than the snail’s pace at which they seem operate. This is my main criticism of the new extension at TATE Modern, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. And it wasn’t just me. A lovely couple who had been given a wheelchair for the lady’s limited mobility wholeheartedly concurred. The large crowds of members waiting on the ground floor also seemed less than impressed as the lifts trundled between the fourth and the tenth floors, never seemingly returning to ground level.

So that’s why I felt less than fresh after my visit to the wonderful new TATE extension, and you know what? I would recommend all of you take the stairs on your first visit to the building too, if you can. Rather than the stairwell being a straightforward column cutting through the floors like a lift shaft, they take you on a journey through the unexpected spaces that make up the new building. Wide sweeping curves of steps lead you gently upwards; narrow, angled stairwells open out into expectedly vast and light filled landings, and a sinuous, seemingly gravity defying, staircase leads you into the bowels of the building. Never has climbing stairs been such an adventure! And I haven’t even touched on the variety (in size and scale) of the new exhibition spaces…

“That variety of spaces was key. We wanted to stretch to being more environmental, providing big spaces for artists to work in performance and installation, but also more intimate spaces.” Nicholas Serota

An architect friend of mine recently said he was struggling to ‘find love for this hulk of a building with its chilling, slit eyed, multi-storey bunker effect.’ Rather than the love child of a 70’s multi-storey carpark and a second world war lookout post, I think it is more like the missing link between the original Bankside power station and the brutalist architecture of the National Theatre and the Southbank. The exposed concrete of the Tanks on Level 0 is wonderfully raw and industrial, and a reminder of the building’s original purpose. The narrow windows may remind one of a defensive pillbox from the outside, but from the inside, the lattice brickwork (hung off the supporting framework) floods the interiors with dappled light patterns.

One frequent complaint about the new building is how much space appears to have been ‘wasted’. Having spent many hours pushing my way through the crowded spaces of the old building, I think the generosity of the communal spaces is as sensible as it is clever. The old TATE Modern has twice the number of visitors it was originally designed for, and these large spaces with occasional seating and resting places will hopefully mean that the new extension will cope with the deluge of visitors in it’s future.

As with the original TATE Modern conversion, the details are delightful, clean and stylish – a palette of concrete, raw oak floors and clear signage (in the TATE font, designed by Henrik Kubel). The restaurant’s new chairs are redolent of mid-century modern classics and fit beautifully into the building’s aesthetic. This feel is continued through the new, much larger members room, and at the top of the tower is the new 360° viewing level showing us wonderful vistas of the London. They also give a new perspective on the old Bankside building, a Sir George Gilbert Scott masterpiece (and a cousin of Battersea Power Station, whose development hell shows us what can happen to these old iconic industrial buildings). As always, you can see a full set of my images here.

I haven’t mentioned the art on display in these new spaces (ranging from the mini Jasper Morrison retrospective ‘Thingness’ and an interactive installation by Gonzalez-Foerster in the basement through to the wonderful new Louise Bourgeois Artist’s Room) because, for me, this visit was all about the building. I’ll definitely be heading back to ‘do’ the exhibitions, but maybe not this opening weekend – I’m not sure my constitution could cope!

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