The tale of the extension of the Tate Modern Museum designed by Herzog and De Meuron is as much a tale of London as it is of the museum itself. The Bankside Power station, whose switch-house this building is built on top of, supplied a significant fraction of the rapidly industrializing city when it opened in 1952. Like the power station, it was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott. The location was ideal because of easy access to the Thames for cooling water and coal deliveries and because of its proximity to central London.

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Old bankside power-station_©httpsgreatwen.com20160615tate-modern-a-tale-of-two-power-stations

Changing needs of a city

As times changed, so did the needs of the city. The tradeoff between polluted air and electricity needs became costlier and costlier until finally the administration was forced to decommission the power station in 1981, only 30 years after it opened. However, the same factors which made the location ideal for the power station also made it ideal for one of the most important public buildings in the 21st century. The Tate Gallery was running out of room for its growing collection and Sir Nicholas Serota roped in Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron to redevelop it into the Tate Modern which opened in 2000.

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Tate Modern_©Simone_Graziano

A rethink and conception

The Tate trustees originally expected to expand the museum by 2025-35. However, when visitor predictions were exceeded by millions (making Tate Modern the most visited Modern Art museum anywhere in the world) and a growing collection due to relentless acquisitions, the trustees were forced to rethink those plans. It was only fitting that the architects who designed the original museum be the ones to design its extension. Thus, with the switch-house of the former power station as the proposed location and a budget of  £260m, Herzog and de Meuron got to work. 

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Concept and other facets_©Herzog-&-de-Meuron

The Constraints

Expanding the museum space by 60% and almost a decade ahead of schedule, the Tate Modern opened to the public on June 17, 2016, almost like a ferocious guard tower made of brick to discourage any property developers and their indiscreet encroachments on the former Bankside Power Station. But the arresting brick ziggurat is also a physical symbol of the effect the Tate has had on its surroundings. Like the original building, Herzog and de Meuron took special care to develop the building while preserving its original architectural character. 

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Bird’s eye view of the riverfront_©Iwan-Baan

The irony is that it is the original Tate, acting as a catalyst for rapid development of the sleepy former industrial heartland and transformation into a posh riverside locality, which constrained the creative limits of its extension. Unable to expand outwards or sideways (as electricity turbines still rumble away in its south-eastern quadrant), Tate Modern had to grow upwards. The faceted form of the extension is a result of the forces acting on it from all sides, sculpted by its neighbours’ rights to light and the invisible lines of protected views to the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral across the river.

Diversified Spaces

The trademark feature of the museum is the sheer variety of spaces it has. Herzog and de Meuron did an excellent job crafting versatile volumes. From the underworld, hosting the oil tanks of the former power station to the panoramic views from the top. The result is a collection of spaces both big and small, crowded and intimate to give almost infinite freedom to artists and performers. There are column-free galleries the size of airport hangars, and a cave-like gallery beneath a concrete staircase.

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A gallery space_©Iwan-Baan
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Plans of different levels_©Herzog-&-de-Meuron

Vertical overview

The opening hang has three different takes on cubes by three different artists, unleashed and free for visitors to walk around and for the artists to reposition and rearrange. The three levels above it host conventional galleries of unconventional proportions. A single gallery measures 64 metres by 15 metres without any columns or other structural members acting as obstructions. “We wanted to create the kind of public spaces you find in nature, where you sit under a tree or on a rock,” says Jacques Herzog, one-half of Herzog & de Meuron. These gargantuan galleries can accommodate a myriad of artworks and performances in endless permutations.

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Level 0 Floor Plan_©Herzog-&-de-Meuron

The levels above are given over to education spaces, a new members’ room, restaurant and staff offices, as well as the Tate Exchange, a place of drop-in workshops and events that Serota describes as “a combination of the Open University, art school, TED talks, and Guardian debates, all wrapped into one.” 

Circulation and Dual-role

Apart from spaces for art and performances, much of the building is for circulation, from long winding staircases, spiral in some parts and dog-legged in others or the lobbies with their triple-height voids. These circulation spaces form key junctions for the masses to assemble and form human connections, thus underscoring the museum’s role as a structure for mixing and mingling apart from its role as a treasure-trove for modern art. These spaces are also a testament to Herzog and de Meuron’s understanding of the sensitivities and duelling undercurrents that run underneath the planning and design of a building this important.

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Winding spiral staircase_©Iwan-Baan

With nooks and niches to roam around and sit in, the museum is heaven for observing human behaviour. Being able to have a private and intimate side section while simultaneously getting the feeling of being part of a bigger whole seems to be the running theme of the building.

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Nook tucked beside a staircase_©Iwan-Baan

Continuity in facade

The details are deliberately quite primitive,” says project architect John O’Mara, describing how the material junctions of brick, concrete and oak are simply expressed as “essential acts of assembly”, in line with the building’s archaic, primal form. Herzog and de Meuron went to extreme lengths to adhere to and extrapolate Giles Gilbert Scott’s approach to the parent building, of a brick skin hung over a structural skeleton. 

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A The brick pattern and slit windows_©Iwan-Baan

However, the bricks are joined without grouting with gaps in between. This texture is punctured only by slit windows on all 10 floors. The facade looks like different things from different angles. Like a knitted fabric to some, an 8-bit three-dimensional model to others, or a pyramid-like structure folded in certain places like cardboard. 

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Side elevation_©Iwan-Baan
The truncated non-pyramid_©Iwan-Baan

Conclusion

The ten-floor structure thus stands in stark contrast to the shallow glass castles that surround it. A continuation of the previous construction that lends grace to the skyline and fulfills Herzog and de Meuron’s goal of  making it “part of the same organism-only with different atmospheres inside.”

References:

  1. Wainwright, O., 2016. First look: inside the Switch House – Tate Modern’s power pyramid. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/may/23/first-look-inside-tate-moderns-power-pyramid> [Accessed 1 August 2022].
  2. Himelfarb, E., 2016. Exploring Switch House, Tate Modern’s Ambitious Addition – Azure Magazine. [online] Azure Magazine. Available at: <https://www.azuremagazine.com/article/tate-modern-switch-house/> [Accessed 1 August 2022].
  3. Nine Elms on the South Bank. 2017. Nine Elms on the South Bank. [online] Available at: <https://nineelmslondon.com/features/the-history-of-battersea-power-station/> [Accessed 1 August 2022].
Author

Himanshu Garg is an undergrad architecture student who likes to dissect the intersection of architecture and politics, and believes in the furtherance of social causes through architecture. His best writing is done in 24-hour cafes, squandering the WiFi and occupying a seat for hours on the back of one Americano.

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