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Inside Herzog & de Meuron's Tate Modern Switch House

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Laura Mark takes a look around Tate Modern’s newly opened extension

PROJECT DATA

We’ve watched the towering brick structure of Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern extension slowly emerge over the last decade, and today – four years late – it finally opens to the public.

It’s the building everyone in London is talking about, and I’m sure there will be huge crowds making their way to see it first-hand this weekend.

And this is for good reason; it is a building that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Its size is immense – firstly towering over the streets of Southwark, and secondly as you enter and realise the sheer scale of the project from within.

Tate director Nicholas Serota says that they had always planned to expand but didn’t expect it to come until at least 2030. But since Herzog & de Meuron’s original conversion of the Bankside power station opened in 2000, visitor numbers to the modern art museum have soared. Last year they hit 5.7 million – far more than the 2 million anticipated 15 years ago. It needed more space and the new extension has given it just that, effectively doubling its size.

The Tate’s slogan for its rebirth is ‘Art Changes We Change’, and its new spaces have been designed to respond to changes in the way we encounter art.

Gallery spaces, stretching 64m long, are more open, light and spacious than the original Tate Modern’s rooms

Beneath the Switch House building – named after the part of the original power station the new building occupies – its oil tanks have reopened as a space for performance art.

Entered through a gigantic chamber of rough-and-ready aged concrete, these spaces, once the working hub of the power station, have created vast echoing drums, while also becoming the foundations for the building above, and influencing its Ziggurat-like shape.

‘The shape was informed by street lines and the geometry of the tanks below,’ says Jacques Herzog.

From this industrial space, visitors ascend into the new gallery space via a beautiful curving staircase which twists up through the floors. Its staircases are one of the things that make this new building – those and the vast areas of circulation. As you wind around the Switch House they expand and contract in size offering small nooks for respite and larger spaces to meet and wait. In these spaces, where padded seats are placed at the windows inviting contemplation, the concrete structure is revealed, cutting a void up though the building’s many levels.

Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron

Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron

Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

At each level you also have a view into the Turbine Hall, connecting the new with the old and providing a way of orientating yourself within the space, which could otherwise be easy to get lost in.

The extension houses three new levels of gallery space, with tall slot windows and rooflights at the fourth level providing natural daylight. These are vast spaces stretching 64m long, and are more open, light and spacious than the original Tate Modern’s rooms. Their flexibility will allow the Tate to display anything from paintings to enormous sculptures.

Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron

Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron

Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

In the current configuration, work by women takes centre stage in the gallery spaces, with the sculptures of Ana Lupas spread across the timber floor, a room dedicated to the headdresses and clothing of Rebecca Horn, and on the upper level the work of Louise Bourgeois.

Spiralling up through the building, visitors pass a large education space, the members room and a restaurant, before emerging at the public viewing gallery on the 10th floor. I’m sure people will visit the building for this space and its views alone.

Externally the building’s brick veil harks back to the brick of Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station, but with a modern touch. This brick was not the first choice either – early designs were for a glass-clad iceberg-like scheme, but these were abandoned in favour of a material that more closely matched the extension’s neighbour.

‘Glass boxes gave us freedom when designing, but they wouldn’t have worked for an actual gallery,’ says Herzog. ‘We began to understand the challenge was to make it feel like one building. The brick came from this.’

It’s a different way of using the traditional material; hung over a concrete frame, the bricks are threaded together on steel rods and act as a giant flexing net, negating the need for ugly expansion joints. This ambitious facade was one of the reasons for the scheme’s delay; it should have been open in time for the London Olympics.

The building feels like an extension of the city, providing an environment people will want to spend time in; where you can go to experience art but also to just sit in its vast spaces. At £260 million it was an expensive project but the benefits will be felt for years to come.

It was a wise move for the Tate to stick with its original architect. It’s rare for star architects to return to such a high-profile job, but here it has paid off. Herzog & de Meuron has learnt the lessons from the previous scheme, but has a great respect for what is there and the institution that it, in part, has helped to create.

The wait was worth it.

The Tate Modern’s Switch House opens today

Project data

Location London
Type of project art gallery
Client Tate
Architect Herzog & de Meuron
Contractor Mace
Structural engineer Ramboll Whitbybird
M&E engineer Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor AECOM
Landscape architect Vogt
Cost £260 million

Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron

Tate Modern Switch House by Herzog & de Meuron

Source: Jim Stephenson

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