Architecture by quarter of a billion-pound committee, and art by public demand: a postcard from the new Tate Modern Switch House extension.
Wish U Were Here is a new feature, in which a correspondent sends us an email postcard from somewhere in the world, answering those most burning of questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? And Why? In this first edition, London architecture critic, editor and 032c contributor JACK SELF visits the new Tate Modern extension on London’s Southbank.
This project has many cooks in the kitchen: of the £250m price tag, the British state paid about a fifth, and a conglomerate of patrons provided most of the rest. About £30m still needs to be found. The pressure on the Tate Modern to sell coffees and fridge magnets is immense, and it shows. This complex mix of public-private partnerships is the epitome of Tony Blair’s “third way” politics (where social democracy and free-market capitalism happily coexist) – all the rage when the Tate Modern was first conceived in the late 1990s. Sir Nicholas Serota, the benevolent puppet master of British contemporary art, is the driving force here. His aspiration to promote art as democratic, tolerant and civic is well meaning but at times misguided.
The Switch House is a brick ziggurat stitched onto the hulk of the Tate Modern. It’s being described as an extension, but it was always part of the plan. In effect, this is the completion of the Tate Modern, begun in 2000. This particular Switch House design dates from around 2008, which is why it feels like Austerity Britain’s answer to the Guggenheim Bilbao, with strong overtones of 1990s Cool Britannia. The quiet reserve of an English conservative is a perfect match for the elegant refinement of Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron. Alas, they were clearly tiptoeing through a cultural minefield to make a building that could be everything to everyone. The intense need to please the whole world – general punters, Brits, foreigners, kids, mavens, historians, donors, the government – means it’s architecture that can’t take any risks. It is therefore exactly what I expected, nothing more or less. There are no disappointments and no surprises. I won’t say a bad word, but I will never love it. The structure is well executed, H&DeM are amongst the best architects in the world – although you get the sense they lacked some enthusiasm in the end. They have copy/pasted a number of details from their B-sides and more obscure projects (notably, concrete benches from the modest masterpiece that is the Parrish Art Museum in Long Island). This could be read as an attempt at artistic consistency or the product of bored frustration. Given my own experiences of working with the English, I would suggest the latter.
The public opening was held this weekend, unveiled with much fanfare. On paper, the Switch House doubled the space of the museum. But actually, it fundamentally reconfigured the whole Tate. The new extension joins the recently completed subterranean Tanks (where the old power station’s oil reserves were kept), and all the existing spaces of the Turbine Hall and Boiler Rooms have been re-hung or changed around completely. It’s basically a completely new museum. In the coming weeks a special programme of live events and new artworks are on display, including a lot of performance works. The Tate Modern has clearly made a big effort to move away from those “trophy art” days, when it thought just whacking together a global hit parade was a job well done – their new collection has a much larger geographic spread, particularly from Africa and Asia, and is more balanced in its representation of gender. Not everyone finds this sincere, however, and there was a large protest on the opening night by feminist groups opposing the inclusion of alleged murderer Carl André (the work of Ana Mendieta, André’s late partner, remains in storage).
The art is all around you. The Tate Modern has the largest open space in the world, and the revamp has foregrounded artforms that traditionally don’t work in a white box gallery. There is a lot of intangible and temporal work, from video and sound to performance and participatory art. Unfortunately, the works requiring public engagement are particularly weak. In one room I was asked to pin a “ribbon vote” onto statements describing the future. If I wanted to be generous I would say it was a profoundly ironic insight into the British tendency to design by committee until compromise means nobody gets what they want. If I am realistic, it was trite, banal and recalled a team-building exercise at a job where everyone is about to quit. To attract as many people as possible the art has to be as engaging and popular as possible. This basically means you get art for kids, or worse, an infantilized public.
The curation falls into two categories: everything you’ve seen before and something you didn’t come to see. With the exception of a truly stunning new room dedicated to Rothko, the museum is pretty standard. Every second floor seems to be either a restaurant or a Tino Sehgal type work. There were a lot of silent lycra-clad dancers playing touch tag, to the bemusement of bored bystanders. I guess that’s all fine, if you like that sort of thing. There isn’t any attempt anywhere to impose a historical narrative, or even a complex thematic, making many collections feel like Pinterest printouts. The replacement of the didactic with the experiential is symptomatic of a more general problem: the Tate Modern prefers to “entertain and provide” rather than “instruct or inform.”
I wish you were here so we could discuss what all this means. Like a Netflix Original Series, I’m happy to binge on the Tate Modern, but I still somehow feel empty at the end. It walks the line. It is just about interesting enough. It would be cool for us to hang at the rooftop gallery, the view is insane and the inclusion of a not-so-discrete wine bar (revenue!) is legitimately attractive. The building is impressive, and the art is generally pretty good, even if the whole thing does feel like an alternate future where 1999 never ended. But maybe global cities are like our parent’s wardrobes – they pick a moment that worked for them and never change. Perhaps it will always be ‘68 in Paris, ‘77 in New York and ‘89 in Berlin.
The Tate Modern Switch House extension House extension is open now.