By Flood, Richard
Artforum International , Vol. 34, No. 2
IT WILL BE CALLED THE TATE GALLERY of Modern Art, and it is scheduled to open at the beginning of the new millennium. The gallery will be housed in an extraordinary postwar relic, an oil-fired power station on the South Bank of the Thames, directly across from St. Paul's Cathedral. The building, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1947, was completed in 1963; by then its austere, rather Gothic-Deco facade was well out of architectural fashion. Perhaps because it was already esthetically obsolete late at birth, the building was denied placement on the architectural registry. It is, nonetheless, a seductively fascistic presence on the insistently banal skyline of the South Bank.
The dominant force behind the creation of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art is Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, current home to what the museum's subhead calls "The National Collections of British and Modern Art in London, Liverpool and St. Ives." The selection of an architect to implement Serota's vision was initiated by an open competition that netted some 150 entries from throughout Europe, the United States, and Japan. From there, 13 firms were short-listed; of these, 6 were asked to prepare extended proposals. In January 1995 the jury, headed by Sir Simon Hornby, selected Herzog & de Meuron, a Basel, Switzerland-based firm. What distinguishes the winning proposal is the seeming simplicity with which it acknowledges the power of the building and exploits its existing structure rather than subverts the brutal grace of its daunting volume.
I sat down with Serota in his Millbank office this past May to discuss the next stage of the project. For Serota, the challenge now is to raise the estimated 100 [pounds] million (a hopeful combination of proceeds from the National Lottery and private fund-raising) required to see the project through to completion. In doing so, he will have to address key questions facing the Western museum system at the dawn of the 21st century - from positioning the hierarchy of artistic movements within the 20th century to defining new relationships with both the public constituency and the private sector.
RICHARD FLOOD: What vision has driven you to feel you need to create a museum of modern art in London at this moment?
NICHOLAS SEROTA: The Tate grew out of being a national gallery of British art; international art was grafted onto it only in the 1920s. So there's always been the sense of a nest in which international art is the cuckoo, and that the cuckoo would eventually have to be pushed out of the nest. Also London, and indeed Britain, has long lacked a place where discussion of the present and of the recent past can be the principal focus. We want to focus on the present. How does art in Britain now relate to what's happening abroad?
RF: When you started thinking about fulfilling that vision, what kind of facility did you have in mind? What led you to the building you chose ?
NS: We decided that there was insufficient space on the Tate's Millbank site to provide the kind of museum that we envisaged. We looked at other possible sites in the city. We knew that it would have to be a landmark site - that it couldn't be tucked away in some corner of the city that would make it difficult for people to find. There are a limited number of large vacant sites in the center of London, so we fairly quickly honed our choice to three or four possible options. Bankside was the only one that involved transforming an existing building. The others all involved a new build, and there was a long debate about which course to take. In the end we chose Bankside, for two principal reasons: one, it offers us more space than any other site; and two, it gives us an opportunity to create a richer variety of spaces and of qualities of finish than would be possible in an entirely new building.
RF: If you'd gone for a new build, would the architects who were asked to submit proposals have been the same ones, or would that have demanded a different thinking about the space? …