The Cathedral of Cool

By Beaton, Belinda | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Cathedral of Cool


Beaton, Belinda, Queen's Quarterly


The countdown to the millennium inspired many civic projects, and architects competed to design tributes to an ill-defined postmodern sensibility. Among the most noted in England were the Millennium Dome in Greenwich and the Sage Centre at Gateshead. Yet the one the public has permanently embraced is by no means in the vanguard of architectural design. Once regarded as a spectacularly ugly industrial site on London's South Bank, it has found new life as a captivating temple of art.

OVER the last thirty years, decrepit manufacturing districts and old ports have become the focus of urban regeneration projects, with their abandoned factories and warehouses finding new functions as restaurants, apartments, and office blocks. Artists have often been the unacknowledged catalysts in such revitalizations; having long ago discovered that the lower rents of neglected buildings enable them to create affordable studio, gallery, and performance spaces. In turn, the new bohemian environments that emerge are magnets for audiences and visitors.

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As the public rediscovers urban areas once dismissed as blighted, a sense of nostalgia for a lost industrial past develops, along with a desire to preserve the character of neighbourhoods once dismissed as unattractive. The newly retrofitted commercial and residential projects that result are often tributes to the virtues of mixed use development. Buildings revamped as arts facilities often remain at the heart of such schemes because they attract tourists who inject capital into local economies. In their second lives, edifices assume new identities that previous generations could never have conceived for them. This has certainly been the case with London's old Bankside Power Station, now known as Tate Modern.

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GILES GILBERT SCOTT'S red brick hulk of a building was considered hideous but functional when it was built between 1947 and 1963 on the south bank of the Thames River. London's postwar power needs demanded that it be centrally located, but, in comparison to St Paul's Cathedral standing majestically across from it on the north bank, it was an eyesore. Authorities stipulated that the huge chimney at its centre could not be higher than Wren's iconic cathedral. After the generator became obsolete and was abandoned in 1981, it stood awaiting demolition.

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Around this time at Millbank, up the river and past the Houses of Parliament, it was becoming painfully apparent that the Tate Gallery simply could not display its holdings effectively. While the museum was dedicated to British art, it also had extensive acquisitions of international modern work. The opening of a new wing for the permanent display of its prestigious Turner collection did not resolve the problem. By 1987 it was decided that a separate branch needed to be established. The same year, Nicholas Serota became the Tate's director and demonstrated an uncanny knack not only for restoring the old galleries of what was now referred to as "Tate Britain," but also for raising funds from government bodies and private sources for what would be "Tate Modern." When he announced in 1992 that the derelict generator two kilometres down the river had been selected for the second gallery, there was genuine surprise.

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The cost of converting the old power station has been [pounds sterling]134 million, of which over half has come from government sources. The government's urban regeneration agency donated [pound sterling]12 million to buy the site and remove the machinery from it. The Millennium Commission contributed [pounds sterling]50 million. The task of redesigning the building fell to the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. While the brickwork was restored, the external appearance of the old station did not change, except that a huge two-storey horizontal roof beam of glass was built across the top of the building to admit natural light. …

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