BY Douglas Murphy in Features | 17 JUN 16

Bricks and Mortar

The architecture of Tate Modern's new extension, the Switch House

BY Douglas Murphy in Features | 17 JUN 16

The overwhelming success of Tate Modern, with its sprinkling of masterpieces, its blockbuster shows, its spectacular corporate series, its community of dedicated art lovers and its millions of bored Italian teenagers who stream down the waxy ramp into the turbine hall each year, meant that an extension was on the cards from almost as soon as it opened in 2000. 

Carved out of the postwar classicism of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station to the designs of Herzog & de Meuron, it resisted the British architectural fashions of the time in favour of a timeless Swiss minimalism. But when the same architects unveiled their proposal to extend the museum in 2007, their proposal was a pre-financial crash riot of stacked glass boxes and, as even they have since admitted, it would have been a disaster of a building.

A Rendering of the redesigned Tate Modern © Peter Saville with Paul Hetherington and Morph

After the crash, H&dM were sent back to Basel to think again, and what is opening now as the Switch House is a more restrained – although don’t call it ‘austerity’ – extension, one designed to allow the newly Frances Morris-helmed Tate Modern to develop a curatorial agenda for performance and time-based art. It also happens to be one of the best new buildings in London for quite some time.

The Switch House is by no means a simple box – it nearly matches the height of the monumental chimney of the power station, and has a twisted aspect familiar from H&dM’s work elsewhere, but it is deceptively cloaked in a skin of bricks that appear to be blending into rather than shouting over the original building, a strategy followed, with some exceptions, within. 

The Tanks © Tate Photography

The Tanks, huge oil storage vessels from the power generating days, were briefly unveiled in 2012, but were shut off again for the construction phase. Back in use and rigged up for performances, they take the post-industrial quality of the original museum into surreal, gothic territory. Entered down a further ramp from the Turbine Hall, the tanks area features nastily stained concrete, orphaned staircases, massive bolted steel walls, and other macabre retentions from the past.

This dungeon-like space is now the location of a tour de force of hitting old with new. Smooth concrete columns (following the angle of the sloping walls above) are interspersed with ragged columns that are now just decorative remnants of the previous space, while a huge concrete helical staircase connects back up to the ground level, setting up a clattering juxtaposition of the brand new and dilapidated.

Switch House, Tate Modern © Iwan Baan

An expansive, stretched quality continues up through the new building, and is clearly a new-build repetition of the as-found vastness that has made loitering around the original building such a popular activity. Circulation takes up much of the floor area, stairs sweep lazily around, and steps are doubled to make useful seating. In places the floors peel back to create vertiginous views up and down between floors.

As for the galleries, fortunately H&dM are not in the ranks of architects who believe that contemporary curators ought to be challenged by spatially awkward situations. New exhibition space mirrors the three major floors of galleries in the original: well lit and rectangular, with opportunities for curators to rearrange partitions for different hangs. The spaces range from a single room that takes up nearly all of the new space in level two,  in which the more architectural works – Carl Andre, Roni Horn, Cristina Iglesias – are placed, to more basic rooms on the floors above. 

Sheela Gowda, Behold, 2009, human hair and car bumpers, dimensions variable © Sheela Gowd

Within the theatrics of the new building, the smaller galleries suit the challenges of hanging ‘active’ art well – videos, photos of performances and so on are often at one remove from the original works that they document and are easy to steal past, although Hélio Oiticica's parrots and some prominent Marina Abramović works are strong in their spaces. Perhaps as a spoonful of sugar after certain less spectacular works, there is a crowd-pleaser of a room dedicated to Louise Bourgeois up on level four.

On that same fourth floor, a new steel bridge provides a fantastic view down across the turbine hall, but also completes the loop of gallery spaces, whose curatorial strategy is to house the older works in the newly hung rooms of the original Boiler House, while allowing the Switch House to focus on post-1960 ‘active’ art. 

Amalia Pica, Strangers, 2008, documentation of performance. Courtesy: Herald St, London; photograph: Polly Brade

The new building keeps on rising up, although the upper levels are populated with what promise to be less display-based spaces – floors given over to Tate Exchange, a new ‘open experiment’ dedicated to art’s social engagement, staff and members rooms, the viewing platform (from which one can peer into the needlessly vulgar flats of ‘Neo Bankside’ next door, one of many hopeless developments Tate Modern has spawned in its immediate surroundings), and of course the restaurant. 

Lately, London architecture has become sober and brick-obsessed. In some hands it’s been good, but a sombre, po-faced austerity look called the ‘New London Vernacular’ has taken over in recent years, to the extent that a European brick shortage was caused by all the architectural herd-following.

Switch House, Tate Modern © Iwan Baan

In a way, the Switch House could have ended up like this, rowing back as it did from the exuberance of its earlier iteration. But whereas most builders have been buying off-the-shelf brick panels that pretend to be like those the Victorians might have used, but are realistically as disingenuous as a Pret a Manger’s wallpapered decrepitude, the skin of the Switch House is a fantastic contrivance. 

The bricks, in two subtly different chocolate tones, are held together by steel connections with no pretence to having been laid with mortar, and are arranged in a perforated lattice that wraps across the whole facade, frequently over the windows themselves. The result is that moving around the new building is a joy – the texture of the facades with their blank faces slashed with gaps is very satisfying, accompanied by a retaining wall of sludgy concrete that appears to have been dredged up from the nearby Thames. But the best moments are at the building’s sloping edges, where the bricks jut out in all directions, giving the silhouette the fuzziest of edges. It takes a lot of judgement to make something so inept look so good. 

Switch House, Tate Modern © Iwan Baan

It’s not all great – externally the old and new parts don’t meet half as well as they should, while some of the internal detailing is hamstrung by the folded form. Not all the finishes are to top standard, sacrifices towards achieving an admirably low energy building, but overall the client and design team have created something entirely of a piece with the original, while adding a new layer of richness. Now all it needs are the sullen school groups.

Douglas Murphy is a writer based in London, UK. His book Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture (2015) is published by Verso.