The Tate Modern Is the Toast of London

By Cheng, Scarlet | The World and I, November 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Tate Modern Is the Toast of London

Cheng, Scarlet, The World and I

The first major museum in London devoted entirely to modern art has opened its doors amid great fanfare. Its unusual presentation--grouping works by genre--yields unexpected insights.

In May, London unveiled the Tate Modern to a buzz of glittery publicity. The newest and most exciting museum in the city is also its first dedicated exclusively to modern and contemporary art--long overdue, as New York has had its Museum of Modern Art since 1929 and Paris its Centre George Pompidou since 1977. It is an offshoot of the stalwart Tate Gallery in Millbank on the north bank of the Thames, which has been renamed Tate Britain and will focus on artists of the United Kingdom.

For those with any interest in modern art--and that spans a hundred years of revolutionary changes--or simply in seeing one of the most spectacular adaptive reuses of a vintage building, the new museum is a must-see on the London tour. As Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, pronounced during opening week, "The Tate Modern will stand out as a jewel in the crown for the advance of the cultural life in London and the country."

It all started years ago, when the Tate Gallery was casting its eye about for a space to house its modern works--the collection had long outgrown the old building. The derelict Bankside Power Station was suggested. With its prime location on the south bank of the Thames, facing St. Paul's Cathedral, and voluminous interior space, it seemed just right. And locating in an unfashionable part of town full of crumbling buildings and council flats would provide the extra benefit of neighborhood revitalization. (Indeed, there was criticism of the location of the Getty Center in the very upscale Brentwood section of Los Angeles when it opened three years ago.)

Furthermore, the building was historic: It was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who created the famous red telephone box that is one of London's cultural icons. Divided by a single chimney stack in the middle, the oblong, red-brick power station was completed in 1963 but fell into disuse in the 1980s.

To convert the building into a museum would be a supremely ambitious task, but Serota, head of the Tate since 1988, is a most determined visionary. As Vanity Fair has written of him, he is "both a curatorial genius and someone good at getting his way." Somehow he and his team managed to put together the necessary funding--the conversion cost a hefty *134.5 million. Fifty million came from the Millennium Commission and 6.2 million from the Arts Council, both of which derive funding from the National Lottery. The rest came from gifts by private, institutional, and corporate donors (over 10 percent from the United States). A special grant from the Labour government has allowed the museum to waive admission fees.

Rebuilding a Building

In 1995 the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron won the heated competition to design the renovation--from a field of nearly 150 competitors. At the time it was a modest but highly respected firm known for smaller- scale designs, yet its proposal of a straightforward, though dramatic, conversion of the building won out.

From the start the architects paid respect to the aesthetics of Scott's design and worked with its lines and spirit to create something also distinctly modern. As Jacques Herzog mused during the opening, "We took an example from martial arts, from aikido--to take the energy of something that is already there and make it your own energy."

Thus the facade remains essentially unchanged, except for a glass light box that runs the length of the roofline behind the chimney and provides a skylight over the entry hall. While the building still has the tone of 1950s industrial massiveness, the light box, as Herzog has pointed out, "is obviously a crisp new element of our time." Inside, everything was ripped out, including the flooring, and reconstructed. "I think that when you come in almost everyone immediately understands how the building is structured," says Herzog.

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