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The battle to build Tate Modern's new temple of art


Most critics love the Tate extension but building Herzog & de Meuron’s new London landmark turned into a planning and construction saga reports Jonathan Owen

‘Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty,’ US President Theodore Roosevelt once remarked.

His words could apply to the new extension to the Tate Modern in London, which finally opened last week.

The ten storey pyramid, on the site of the Giles Gilbert Scott-designed Bankside Power Station in London, is late and over budget, although of course those two things are often synonymous with major projects with ambitious designs.

To be fair, despite being four years late and costing £45 million more than anticipated, the saga of the Tate Modern extension pales into insignificance compared to that of another iconic building, the Sydney Opera House. That famously ended up being a decade late, costing a whopping 1,457 per cent more than was budgeted.

The new Tate Modern extension has been hailed a triumph, receiving rave reviews and described as a cultural cathedral.

Standing on the site of the old power station’s former switch house, the extension has given Tate Modern more than 21,000m2 of extra space. Huge underground oil tanks have been transformed into art, installation and performance ‘spaces.’

But getting to this point has not been problem free.

The saga began more than a decade ago, when Herzon & de Meuron - acclaimed for its design of the original Tate Modern - was selected as the architect for an extension to increase the size of the museum by 60 per cent.

That was in 2005, and the plan was that the new building would be ready in time for the London 2012 Olympics.

At first all went well, with designs submitted and planning approval obtained within the space of a year.

But an early setback saw the original plans for a glass pyramid torn up in 2008, with glass replaced by a brick façade – more in keeping with the materials used in the original power station – and the underground oil tanks retained instead of being replaced by an auditorium.

Tate director Nicholas Serota said at the time: ‘I have no problem about changing my mind when I see something more imaginative and more mature that sits more comfortably with the existing building.’

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, it resulted in many companies closing, rather than opening, wallets when it came to donating towards the new project.

But as well as dealing with serious fundraising challenges, the Tate extension project has struggled with technical obstacles associated with the challenging shape of the building and its fiendishly complicated brick façade.

Changes to the size of the pre-cast concrete panels which clad the building added to the delays and – as the AJ revealed two years’ ago - the development’s project manager Gardiner & Theobald was relieved of its core role with Stanhope brought in as a senior client advisor.

Indeed, the exterior was so complex that special machinery had to be developed in order to bond pairs of bricks to precise specifications with hardly any room for error. Some 336,000 bricks, with a staggering 212 different types used, were imported from Germany and contained three different clays to achieve the final look of the façade.

All in all, the building’s façade ended up costing almost £10million. And last September, the Tate finally admitted the extension as a whole would cost far more than originally budgeted – with the cost having risen from £215million to £260million – a 21 per cent increase which left the institution, at that point, with £30million still to raise to reach the total budget.

The £45million overrun was blamed by Serota on building cost inflation since 2006 and also on an increase in project scope to include refurbishment of the existing gallery space.

‘I didn’t want to be in the position of opening this perfect new extension next to something that was shabby in some areas,’ Serota told the AJ last September.

‘We thought it would be easier to include work such as renewing the toilets and members bar in this budget rather than starting a separate fundraising effort.’

In a time of continuing austerity, this explanation has not been enough to satisfy critics concerned by the extent of the overspend and by how the Tate has used almost £60m of taxpayers’ money (see box).

The Tate’s PR machine has been reluctant to admit any shortcomings during the project, with the arts body secretive about what goes on behind closed doors and minutes of Tate board meetings heavily redacted. Repeated attempts by AJ in recent weeks to secure an interview with anyone at the Tate to discuss the extension have been ignored.

It has announced few details of who has funded the bulk of the project (see box below) and when asked what the £50million given by central government towards the project was specifically spent on, the official Tate response was: ‘A contribution to overall cost.’

Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, says: ‘Taxpayers will rightly be angry that this project is coming in late and over budget…serious questions need to be asked as to whether this is the best use of taxpayers’ cash.’

Labour Helen Goodman MP, a former shadow culture minister who is now on the Treasury Select Committee agrees.

‘I think the extravagant expenditure by London arts institutions on buildings is getting out of control, we see here a massive overspend of £45million,’ she says.

But others, such as former RIBA president George Ferguson argues that the finished article is the most important thing.

‘You just have to think of this as an extravagant work of art and in time we’ll look back and we’ll welcome the quality but forget the price,’ he says.

Speaking at the press launch for the Tate Modern extension last week, Lord Browne, chairman of the Tate trustees, paid tribute to what has been achieved.

‘A building that was once London’s beating heart is now its cultural cathedral,’ he said.

It’s not quite the Segrada Familia. But given how ambitious and innovative London’s new ‘cathedral’ is, it seems a shame the Tate will say so little about how its fearsome technical challenges were overcome and why building this landmark scheme became such a saga.


How was the Tate extension funded?

In terms of the identity of donors, only around £70m of the £230m the Tate has raised towards the project has been made public. What the Tate has said is that the scheme was made possible by ‘one of the largest cultural fundraising campaigns ever launched and through the enormous generosity of the Government, the Greater London Authority and many private foundations and individuals’.This includes a £50m investment from central government, £7m from the Greater London Authority and £2m from Southwark Council.

Among private donors, the Wolfson Foundation made a grant of £5m and the Eyal Ofer Family put forward £10m, both in 2013. Other major donations have been made by the Blavatnik Family Foundation, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and The Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. In addition, several individuals including Elizabeth Murdoch have made significant contributions and Tate members have added further financial support.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Chris Rogers

    ‘We thought it would be easier to include work such as renewing the toilets and members bar in this budget rather than starting a separate fundraising effort.’ But not the lifts, I bet, which haven't worked since day one, hence the prominent signs asking people to use the stairs

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  • Strange that the management and funding of such a high profile 'look at me' project should be wrapped in so much secrecy - and I wonder why three quarters of the donors prefer anonymity?
    Conscience / vanity money from tax dodgers / mass terminators of people's livelihoods / offshore criminals?
    Or just naturally shy and reclusive folk?

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