by VERONICA SIMPSON
“I’m not going to know any of these artists,” murmured a visitor to the new Tate Modern Switch House as he stood behind me, waiting for one of the lifts. A throwaway remark, perhaps, but it takes a special kind of art gallery to tempt people through its doors when they haven’t a clue what they will find beyond them. And even though the Switch House had not been open a week when this sentiment was expressed, this new £260m building shows every sign of being exactly that kind of place: generous, inclusive, public-facing, engaging, challenging and, of course, free.
The new Switch House boosts Tate Modern’s existing gallery space by 60%. And in this wonky ziggurat of a building, under the heading How Art Became Active: 1960 to Now, are all the kinds of art that doesn’t normally have a permanent London showcase; boundary-blurring art, for the most part. There is Between Object and Architecture on level 2 (Carl Andre, Rachel Whiteread, Roni Horn, Tony Cragg, Ricardo Basbaum). Participatory art and performance art have their own dedicated space on level 3 (Marina Abramović and Rebecca Horn, Ana Lupas, Meschac Gaba), but are also woven in with other thematic groups (Amalia Pica on level 2, Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş and Tarek Atoui on level 0), and film and video art are everywhere (from Charles Atlas’s early works to a multiscreen installation in its own subterranean space, dedicated to Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul). There is even a floor (level 4) dedicated to art that overlaps with planning and city-making (Living Cities), currently displaying thought-provoking pieces from Nil Yalter, Julie Mehretu, Boris Mikhailov, Marwan Rechmaoui and Kader Attia.
The galleries are mostly vast rooms with generous ceiling heights, which allow visitors to move freely between sculptures, installations and wall-mounted works, their white walls occasionally punctured by a vertical slice of Bankside daylight. Dedicated artist rooms offer opportunities for both intimate examination as well as wider perspectives; the Louise Bourgeois room is a perfect mini-immersion into her world. Smaller rooms occurring around or within the bigger ones create opportunities for screenings, focused contemplation or reflection – Ricardo Basbaum has picked one of the most interesting corners in a building of many corners for his experiment of inhabitable cages (Capsules NBP x me-you); currently the selfie sweet spot du jour. And, between these rooms, spacious lobbies offer comfortable seating in all shapes and sizes, from curving benches to cushioned window seats.
In these two key respects – the quality of gallery space and opportunities for public engagement – architects Herzog & de Meuron have bettered the achievement of their first incarnation for Tate Modern, now dubbed the Boiler House. By making its cavernous, central Turbine Hall visible from every escalator and balcony, every balcony inhabitable, and offering refreshments on several levels, it felt like the gallery was 70% public space, 30% gallery space. This bold, welcoming gesture translated into unprecedented visitor numbers – from the expected two million to 5.7 million at the last count. But the galleries themselves are boxy, claustrophobic and boringly linear for the modern, interactive art lover, and far too confining for today’s kind of multidisciplinary artist.
The Switch House has reinvented the contemporary art museum in a way that is far more in tune with the 21st century. The architects have worked closely with the curatorial team to create a diverse collection of both exhibition and public spaces, maximising education, serendipitous encounter, relaxation and private study, throughout the building.
The cranked shape of the Switch House has apparently been dictated by a number of immutable forces: primarily the strident demands of its near neighbours to protect their £20m apartments’ rights to light (though many will have lost their river views); and also to follow the desired flows and flexibilities of a more sociable, permeable programme.
The dialogue between building, contents and audience is generally nicely mediated. The rough, industrial-era concrete of the dug-out level 0 structure, in which the film and video “tanks” sit, has a grimy, down-to-earth gravity, providing a visceral, gritty backdrop to the ephemeral, flickering screens and two-dimensional digital allure of the films housed therein. The concrete spiral staircase that sweeps up to the ground floor (level 1) delivers visitors into the slick, shiny, primary-coloured buzz of the shop and the transparency and calm of the ground floor cafe. However packed the building has been in its opening weeks, these lower areas seem able to accommodate the crowds effortlessly, as does the level 2 lobby, all calm wood floors and wide, generous window seats. The same, sadly, cannot be said of the lifts, which seem to plunge their potential users into a baffling and endless purgatory of waiting.
There are those – venerable architects of the kind of buildings that have been doing public and generous for decades – who are peeved that the building doesn’t provide a sufficiently sweeping or emphatic entrance. It is true that you either access it through existing gateways – swooping in via the Boiler House’s riverfront door and across the drawbridge, or down the level 0 ramp of the Turbine Hall – or you have to navigate the fairly characterless new public plaza, and negotiate your way past the burly security guard and through a humdrum doorway sandwiched between cafe and shop. Maybe that is an opportunity missed – or perhaps that was the architects trying not to overshadow the dramatic welcome of the more prominent sibling.
What feels like the real entrance is the aforementioned level 2 lobby, where the oversized window seats positively beg you to take time out and orientate yourself. It is a place to sit back and marvel at the sculpture you are inhabiting: the inclined planes of the surrounding walls and the crazily canted balconies overhead; the delicate patterning of the exterior brick veil and the vistas on to the first Tate building, its quirky assortment of neighbours, or the aforementioned plaza. Here, you can people watch or plan your journey up through the galleries, aided by the classic Tate graphics, which do a heroic job of clarifying the contents across both buildings. There is even a mini coffee bar around the corner to assist you in your ponderings.
Accessibility and engagement are writ large in the doorless entrances to the same level 2 gallery, Object and Architecture. There is a liberating lack of columns and enclosures in all galleries, but this level 2 hangar positively luxuriates in its unfettered acreage, all 64 metres by 15 metres.
But it is not all unmitigated architectural joy and artistic freedoms. A mounting sense of claustrophobia accompanies those ascending the staircase after the fourth floor, from which point it narrows, very tangibly, the higher up the building you get; as if the Tate doesn’t really expect large numbers to ascend via the stairs, which, given how dreadful the lifts are, is over-optimistic, to say the least.
I will also admit, as a member, to being a little crestfallen that the members’ level 8 cafe doesn’t even attempt to match the original for dramatic vistas, either inside or out. After queuing at the chaotic but friendly food and drink counter, enjoying the views on to St Paul’s Cathedral and the north bank of the Thames, you sit down at a table and the view disappears: the horizontal band of windows at shoulder-height are narrow, boxy things, framed in clunky metal. Combined with the proliferation of Ikea-style Nordic wood furniture, it conjures up the atmosphere of a contemporary Swedish ferry canteen, rather than the reward for membership of one of Europe’s foremost galleries of contemporary art. The restaurant up the stairs looks like an altogether swankier affair.
The best views are offered by the two education / engagement floors – which is probably as it should be, in these days of public-engagement-driven arts funding. Designed to host The Tate Exchange, a place of drop-in workshops and events, these floors now give Tate director Nicholas Serota a chance to achieve his vision of the Tate Modern as “a combination of the Open University, art school, TED talks and Guardian debates”. Given the crisis about to arise in the UK’s art schools – only recently having decided to prioritise overseas students to boost their fees, but now likely to be deprived of this lucrative income thanks to the Brexit catastrophe – one has to be glad, at least, that free access to arts encounters and education is being expanded by our leading institutions.
The design of the structure itself is intended as a nod to Giles Gilbert Scott’s original power station: a brick skin hung over a structural skeleton. Herzog & de Meuron have opted for quirky craftsmanship, draping a delicate brick veil over the concrete bones of the Switch House, which throws mesmerising patterns of sunlight and shade on to the timber-floored interior during the day, while emitting a dazzling patchwork of light from inside the building at night. It is a vastly more civic and tasteful structure than the “teetering pile of glass cubes” that was envisioned for the building back in 2007. Jacques Herzog has pronounced himself “ashamed that we could have proposed such a monster of a building”.
However, there are times when this version feels like it is tying itself in knots in the effort to accommodate its various stakeholders. A fundamental concern for both architects and client was that the new building integrates well into the existing urban fabric. Approaching the Tate Modern from any angle, the Switch House – though it has 10 floors to Tate’s five – never eclipses or dominates. What’s more, the folds and planes of its exterior facade echo the angles of the glazed Toblerone wedges and structural crossbeams that wrap around the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners-designed neighbour, Neo Bankside, playfully mimicking these totems of glassily luxurious living through a display of consummate postural mirroring.
Confronted with such good manners, it felt positively embarrassing, some way into its second week, to notice that the building had sprung a number of sizeable leaks due to the sudden torrential downpours that afflicted London in June. Drip buckets were visible on almost every floor. Snagging is always an issue on ambitious buildings, but this is particularly baffling, given the escalation of its costs from the original £45m to £260m. Aside from that structural faux pas, detailing is often exquisite, from the brickwork’s evolution from solid to shingle-like overlap to crocheted porosity, to the handsome carpentry of curved wooden benches or the voluptuous edging of cast concrete seats; care and craftsmanship are the leitmotifs.
Speaking of manners, new Tate Modern director Frances Morris must be congratulated for inviting so many female artists to the table, with many new and older names holding their own against the establishment males. Morris claims that the new Switch House’s male / female mix is almost 50:50 (in the entire Tate collection it’s still only 7% women, but Morris says she can’t, single-handedly, undo half the 20th century’s relegation of women to the little league). And the presence of so many strong, female voices in this building and the Boiler House – as well as the multi-ethnicity of the displays – is an invigorating call to action for current and future female artists as well as artists from all over the globe.
If compromises have been made, they are generally achieved with subtlety and grace. The only point at which the Switch House could be said to indulge in a moment of vulgarity – and this surely isn’t the architects’ intention – is on the 10th floor viewing platform, a space where the landmarks along the Thames and the rabid development of Southwark are thrown open to the fascinated observer. On every one of my five visits so far, this 360-degree platform was at its most congested not at the section overlooking the Thames and St Paul’s, but to the rear, where the interiors porn of these Neo Bankside apartments’ entirely glazed living rooms was displayed like some wanton centre-spread: identikit designer furniture, sumptuous rugs, immaculately arranged sculptural knicknacks. This sterile, barely inhabited stack of clutter-free, transparent interiors thus becomes an unintended performance art piece all of its own.