It is now sixteen years since the turbine hall and boiler house of the old Bankside Power Station opened, to much acclaim and general popularity, as Tate Modern. In June of this year its latest, and largest, extension was opened and, on Friday, I went to explore this, the Switch House.
If, like me, you approach Tate Modern from Southwark tube station (Jubilee line), the Switch House is the closest and the first building you see. Its ziggurat shape can be glimpsed from Great Suffolk Street, with the iconic power station chimney tower in the background. It stands on the site of the electricity sub-station attached to Bankside, which was, until the recent works, still occupied by an electricity company (EDF).
Begun in 2004 and designed by Herzog and de Meuron, its opening provides the gallery with an additional twenty-two and a half thousand square metres of space. Tate Modern, with its Boiler House, Turbine Hall and Switch House, is now one of the largest museums of modern art anywhere in the world.
The Switch House has ten storeys and I started at the top, in the Viewing Gallery, the smallest of the ziggurat’s levels. There are spectacular views over London from the open walkway which runs all around here ( although your blogger, a vertigo sufferer, remained inside ). Many photographs were taken.
On level nine there is a restaurant, the excellence or otherwise of which I cannot yet attest and on level eight the new Tate Members Room. This is suitably modern in decor, with stripped wooden floor and wood panelled walls with ‘industrial’ lighting and curved wood-back chairs. Certainly not as comfortable as the Members Room at Tate Britain, which is located above the entrance hall, around and beneath the cupola ‘well’, but, again, it has stunning views. As has the original Members Room in the Boiler House, directly over-looking the river, which is now billed as the Members Bar. The restaurant, not open when I visited, was kitted out in the same style. The coffee was as good as usual.
Levels seven, six and five are not yet open, being ear-marked, respectively, for staff, ‘events’ and ‘collaborative projects’ of what nature I am unaware. The collections are displayed on levels four, three and two, with level one devoted to a foyer, terrace cafe and bar and shop ( and link to the main, Boiler House building, via a bridge ). This is the Sumner Street entrance to the Switch House and there is an outside circular terrace which, I assume, can be used for outside performance events.
On the whole the space is airy, light and interesting, with sight-lines to the Turbine Hall and Boiler House opposite and to external ‘sights’. There are some excellent details – the long, curved concrete seats along the central stairwell is a very good use of material – and some minor quibbles – why make the Starck-style taps in the bathrooms so short that water spills over the back of the wash basins?
The Level Two foyer ( right ) includes a light well from where you can see the rising floors of the ziggurat. On Friday the galleries ( and, surprisingly, the viewing level ) weren’t crowded, but there were enough people to make the act of viewing the exhibits a shared experience. This is good, especially given the inter-active nature of some of them ( this will form the substance of another blog, there is too much to mention here ).
At level zero is The Tanks, a performance space carved from the three round underground tanks which the old power station used to hold oil. These have re-opened, having been closed while The Switch House was constructed. They can be accessed from the Turbine Hall as well as the Switch House.
So, the building itself is well worth a visit. Entrance is free and the view from the top level is worth coming for alone, though there’s lots more to see and do ( see Tate Modern web-site ). Membership, if readers are likely to be in London, Liverpool or St Ives on a regular basis, costs £110 a year for two people, allowing free access to all major, charged for, exhibitions, Members Rooms and Bars and special events at all four main sites. ( And a snip at the price. ) I’ll be blogging about the Switch House collections soon.