London has re-discovered its rooftops. It started with the “Post Office Tower” and disappeared when the revolving restaurant was closed, then re-emerged when “Tower 42″ (formerly the NatWest Tower) opened up the area around its lift shafts as a bar linked to a restaurant several floors below. Then came the “Gherkin” with its rooftop space free of plantrooms, but only for clients within the building and their guests. New heights were achieved when the “Shard” opened its viewing gallery to the public without any need to eat or drink, but at a hefty admission free. The new compromise was the “Walkie Talkie” with free admission and an optional bar in which to spend the money saved from the admission fee from the Shard. Now, London’s latest is the new extension to Tate Modern, lower at only 10 storeys, but giving great views level to the rooftops, the chimney of the former power station that is now the Boiler House at Tate Modern and the dome of St Paul’s rather than looking down at them from 70 storeys – and it’s free.
Herzog & de Meuron’s new extension to Tate Modern, now called the ”Switch House”, opened to great excitement last week with queues snaking outside the building on the preview days, despite the rain. Connecting into the old “Boiler House” building, including a walkway at the 4th floor, the immense “Turbine Hall” is now at the centre - the nave of this artistic cathedral – rather than at the side.
The new building its a sculptural artwork of finely-detailed twisted and folded brickwork, throwing a veil over the concrete structure, following the lead of the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre at the London School of Economics, designed by O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects. Surprisingly, perhaps, there are only three floors of new galleries, plus the former oil tanks in the basement which provide some of the most interesting galleries in the development, the remainder of the space being taken up with education facilities, cinema, restaurant, members’ room, shop and other essential facilities, which makes it a long walk down from the viewing gallery at Level 10 to the galleries at Level 4, though interest is created by changes in staircase configurations and the views out on the way down.
The galleries are well-proportioned and have the essential flexibility required today, some with views out and some totally enclosed for video or other dark installations. There has been a rehanging of many of galleries in the old building along with the new, to bring new international artists to London, but the massive proportions of the Turbine Hall have not been addressed; Ai Weiwei’s sculptural tree looks lost and forlorn on its own here and some of the rooms such as “Between Object and Architecture” feel a little cluttered with a wide contrast in works from the sophistication of Christina Iglesias’ “Pavilion Suspended in a Room I” to the galvanised steel ventilation ducts “Square Tubes (Series D) of Cahrlotte Posnenske.
Overall, it is the building which is the success, more than the art within it, though there are highlights such as the room dedicated to Louise Bourgeois, albeit the display here looks mean compared to that currently in the Guggenheim in Bilbao. For an opening show, there are few fireworks and a slight feeling that perhaps the money has gone on the building. – noting that the Bourgeois works are part of the generous gift by Anthony d’Offay to the Tate and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Perhaps now that fundraising for the building is reducing, what is now needed is a concerted effort for donations or loans, filling gaps in the collection, using the Turbine Hall to its full potential and also potentially installing sculptures outside on the rather bleak paved areas.
The new extension provides a splendid opportunity, in addition to being a top candidate for the 2017 Stirling Prize.