Sunday Times, 29 May 2016
A few years back, Tate Modern and its architects, Herzog & de Meuron, dodged a bullet, or, rather, a hail of bullets. They decided to abandon the initial glass-walled plan for their £260m extension. Now Jacques Herzog — Pierre de Meuron does not speak unless subjected to torture — looks back at the scheme with disgust. “I am really ashamed that we could have proposed such a monster,” he has said.
There are two reasons to raise a glass to Jacques: a big one and a really big one. The big one is that, in abandoning glass and embracing brick cladding, they have properly paid homage to the magnificence of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station. Somewhere in the Alpine fastness of their Swiss imaginations, I like to think an epiphany has occurred.
I wrote about H & de M when they were awarded the Tate contract back in the mid-1990s, and I detected a certain unease with Scott’s building. One of the staff told me it was “ugly”, which it most certainly isn’t. For me, this unease was apparent in the finished scheme. I never relax in Tate Modern, and I am probably alone in the world in thinking that the turning of the Turbine Hall into one giant, unpunctuated space was a mistake. It seems to crush the galleries, an effect made worse by overcrowding. Tate Modern was designed for 2m visitors a year; the figure is now more than 5m.
But H & de M’s Tate II is a triumph. Scott’s brickwork is a glory, but it is matched by the brick skin (the bond, for brick geeks, is double Flemish) that has been cast over their new building. This is subtle stuff. At the base, the skin starts as a solid wall, then gradually fades into a gentle rhythm of holes and bricks — the effect is variously described as a “veil”, or “knitwear”, but the most explanatory term is “trellis”. Furthermore, this trellis is extended to form a huge brick plaque on the rear wall of the Turbine Hall. Giles meets Jacques, with Pierre hovering, silent, in the background.
The new tower is a complex form. The brickwork is asymmetrically interrupted by ribbon windows, an effect that, taken in isolation, suggests a 1970s campus building. But the muscular, prismatic shape of the tower evokes something much more aggressive — perhaps the forecastle of some gigantic First World War battleship on its way to Jutland, a Dreadnought.
From the south side, the target of this aggression becomes clear. And here we come to the really big reason to toast Jacques. London is being lacerated by glass, the death of a thousand cuts. Dumb glass blocks — many empty, having been bought by foreign investors — are rising everywhere, imposing a deadly, architecturally illiterate uniformity on a city whose primary virtue is its variety. The river area around Battersea has been ruined, and wherever you live in the capital is next. At least Rafael Viñoly’s grimly awful “Walkie Talkie” tower in the City amuses with its glass-walled, swaggering pomposity, but otherwise it’s just more of the same.
The only idea in any developer’s head is glass: the cheaper, the nastier, the better. Even when it’s expensive, it’s still glass: cold, hard, unyielding, meaningless and impenetrable. Glass is doing what the Luftwaffe failed to do, flattening London. It seems one of the reasons H & de M abandoned glass is that they knew what was coming and, indeed, now, from the south, the brittle armies of glass towers have arrived to besiege Tate Modern. I trust the Dreadnought will give them pause.
Inside, there are two halves to the development: the Switch House and the Tower. The former is a straightforward four-storey rectangular block, constructed behind the Turbine Hall in the space left by the removal of assorted electrical gubbins. It provides most of the new gallery space — there are a few enclaves in the Tower. Each floor is 64 metres by 15 metres and, as a result, the Switch House increases Tate Modern’s exhibition space by 60%. The ceiling height of the floors varies between 3.8 metres and 5.5 metres, so equal attention has been paid to the gigantic and the intimate. The top floor can be daylight-illuminated.
The Tower provides circulation, with gorgeous, broad concrete curves of staircase between each floor, restaurant, cafe, members’ and patrons’ rooms, a roof terrace, offices and so on. All nicely done, but what makes this tower spectacular is, again, that brick skin.
Inside, you realise it is indeed a skin, stretched over the concrete structure. There is, as a result, a gap, a zone of wonders. The first wonder is that you get startling views within the building, chasms of wall space on which the trellis casts geometrical patterns that change as the sun moves, or strangely illuminated lobbies and stairwells. This is architecture at a much higher level than the original Tate conversion; that area is now known as the Boiler House.
In addition, the trellis provides climate control — as a simple brise soleil (sun blocker) or, most satisfyingly, as a provider of airflow. For, wonder of wonders, the Tower is full of windows that can — get this — be opened. One of the many reasons glass towers are so offensive is that they turn a material best suited for windows — objects that connect you to the world beyond — into walls. You never feel more cut off from humanity than behind a solid wall of impenetrable glass, a material that has been made, perversely, opaque. But if there are real, opening windows, all is well.
The opening windows mean the air in the Tower is very breathable. In full air conditioning, I always want to hold my breath; here, I can breathe freely. There is air conditioning within the development, notably beneath, in the Switch House, in the form of a mighty (invisible) dehumidifier known as the digestive biscuit. (It’s round and absorbent.) But the conditioning is non-intrusive. Strikingly, the net effect is that almost every room has a slightly different air quality: there is an air menu. Doubtless, much of this effect will be lost when the warm crowds pour in, but it’s there if you want it.
The floors of the Tower are covered in untreated oak, which will get dirtier and dirtier until, finally, the dirt is transfigured into patina, a satisfying process that may make you want to turn up in muddy boots. But the dominant material is concrete, much of it already slightly weathered, as it was in place well before the cladding. This, again, is a nod to the original building.
The Tower rises above the three giant circular tanks that once stored the oil for the power station. These were, some time ago, turned into performance and installation spaces. Peeling back the interior that joins the Turbine Hall to the tank area exposed a dramatic cavern of concrete columns and walls. The raking concrete supports of the tower have made this space even more complex and pleasingly random. The concrete then rises up through the Tower as if it had sprouted, plant-like, from the tanks, the curling staircases its tendrils.
In a word, it works, first as a rebuke to the march of the glass morons, and second as an opening-out of the previously constricted and, for me, unsatisfying spaces of Tate Modern. The Turbine Hall still gets in the way, but H & de M have at least put a high-level bridge across, joining the main building to the Tower.
In our time, cultural buildings have become our churches and cathedrals. Their problem is, they have nothing as precise or well defined as Christianity to celebrate. This problem has not been solved. With the subtle exuberance and awareness of the past it brings to the task, the Tate Modern extension at least opens up an issue that had always languished — and probably always will — in the “too hard” box.