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tate of the nation

Peter Wilson has spearheaded the Tate's re-emergence as a force in the museums world through its buildings. And this week the latest piece of the puzzle slots into place, with John Miller and Partners' new-look Tate Britain

'We want to be a player in the future - there's no reason why a museum can't be a player any more than a supermarket, or an airport.We can do that.'

So says Peter Wilson, the affable, avuncular and action-orientated director of projects and estates at the Tate.

He is talking about life after Tate Modern, and how he wants to look to more restaurants, bars, shops and artrelated accommodation - perhaps for the Architecture Foundation, perhaps space for digital, film or design - in the hithertounexplored massive, undeveloped south side of the Bankside Power Station. ('At the moment it's a lot of dark, a lot of damp, and probably a few rats.') And who would doubt it will happen?

Today Wilson will reflect on his latest Tate triumph, as Tate Britain opens to the public after a major makeover by John Miller and Partners inside, and Allies and Morrison out.

The £32.3 million Centenary project, four years in the making, includes new, refurbished and temporary galleries, a new entrance, shop and other sensitive additions.

In all, it has been a 35 per cent increase in space that has worked out twice as pricey as Bankside, at about £4,000/m 2, but Wilson is more than happy with the results.

'It's surprised me a lot, I think, ' he says. 'I think it's got a kind of formal elegance. It's a very particular solution to our needs and meets the brief very well - in quite surprising ways.'

Not least in its use of colour, a pleasant eye-opener to Wilson, after having seen Miller's work at the Royal College of Art. He has been heartened, too, by the ways that his building teams have cross-fertilised their ideas, mostly at breakfast meetings he has been privileged to hold at the Tate sites.

And there are similarities between Tates Modern and Britain. Both use new ramps as public features for visitors to walk down and into the interiors. Allies and Morrison's at Millbank leads to a new entrance, aiding disabled access, and speeding up visitors who arrive from Pimlico tube station.

'Both give you no sense that you're in a basement, ' says Wilson. 'Then there's the light beam at Tate Modern, which balances the chimney and does something as well.

The same thing came up here, quite independently: Allies and Morrison use light and glass here too and people are beginning to see that.'

Wilson, now 54, studied natural sciences at Cambridge before working 'in industry' in a company which, rather fittingly, made paint. Even more fittingly, there was a particular building type it applied its paint technology to - 'I know an awful lot about power stations, ' he says. But Wilson grew tired of the endless visits to places such as Jarrow and the shipyards of Glasgow - a 'culture shock' for a newly married young man down from Cambridge. So he resigned and applied for a studentship at the Tate, National and V&A that he saw advertised one day in The Times.

'Even then, the Tate was an exciting, goahead kind of place. My wife introduced me to it - brought me to see exhibitions. I think I was very lucky to get in - there was quite a lot of competition.'

Four years of training followed in conservation as an art conservator, and he did his post-graduate thesis on 'how paintings travel'.Wilson was carving a niche in the environmental conditions required by galleries, which came in handy when he had to advise the trustees of the Tate, including Sandy Wilson, on problems it was having with Llewelyn Davies' extension at the original gallery. 'It had big problems with its environmental controls - they didn't work.'

There had already been letters to The Times and 'huge outrage' over the architect's original plans for a Modernist extension right over the Millbank frontage and into the street. And now this.

Then came the career change. In the '80s, Wilson moved out of conservation and on to a string of building projects.

'I was desperately keen not to do it - I had this wonderful job where I travelled the world - Japan, Russia, the US. But Nick [Serota] just looked at me and said: 'It isn't going to be boring, you know.'' It wasn't. First Wilson was providing the technical briefs and design input for James Stirling's Clore Gallery in 1987. Then there was the Tate Gallery in Liverpool the following year, after which there was St Ives - which the Tate was persuaded to run, rather than simply loan paintings to, because of the strength of its brand. It was something which, at the time, Cornwall County Council seemed to recognise better than the Tate itself.

Evans and Shalev's scheme had already been chosen. 'But it was designed on an inadequate brief. No one knew enough about what they wanted.' The project led to some 'uncomfortable moments' between architect and client, and the lesson that technical briefs were not the sole key to success.

Then, in 1995, Herzog & de Meuron was appointed to Tate Modern and, as with Miller at Tate Britain, Wilson puts great stall by the non-adversarial relationships which have resulted (despite the warts-and-all Power into Art film and book, where Harry Gugger feels like a jilted lover when Richard Rogers got the job to do the Tate masterplan). 'I've been privileged to become friends with all of the architects we've used, ' he says. 'If you can't become good friends then it isn't going to work properly.'

It was almost the Tate at Billingsgate Fish Market, Wilson reveals, with the idea being to connect it by boat to its Millbank sister.

Now a new pier by David Marks Julia Barfield will open next spring at Millbank withà a boat-service link to Tate Modern.

Wilson is warm, too, towards Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, a 'shrewd' mover and a 'small 'P' political' shaker who 'grasps the importance of buildings'. 'After Tate Modern, no one could deny that buildings are a very significant part of the success of what you do overall.' Serota triumphed in getting funding - not by asking government mandarins, 'had they noticed, but London had no modern art museum?' - but through pushing it as a tourist draw. And so it has proved.

Wilson also pays homage to Stuart Lipton and Stanhope, for helping with the sifting of 100 sites in the capital before they landed the power station for £10 million, roughly a third of its market value. Also for helping them become a 'player', teaching them how to run big projects. And a 'player' Peter Wilson OBE and his team have certainly become.

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