PRINT September 2016


Herzog & de Meuron, Tate Modern addition, 2016, London. Photo: Iwan Baan.

WHEN PIERRE DE MEURON recently said that Tate Modern, which he designed with Jacques Herzog, “created a wholly new way of showing art,” it was probably one of the few cases on record in which an architect was not egotistical enough. In fact, when the building opened in 2000, it represented nothing less than a wholesale reinvention of the art museum, a project of game-changing superlatives: It was the largest institution dedicated to modern and contemporary art in the world; it also became the most popular, attracting more than five million visitors (nearly double those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, its closest rival) in its first year, and in the following decade it transformed the surrounding South Bank neighborhood into one of London’s fastest-growing districts.

In an era marked by fierce cultural competition among cities and by rampant globalization, these were all noteworthy—and widely noted—milestones. But to focus only on the museum’s power as an engine of tourism and urban development (following the trend already established by the opening of Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Bilbao three years earlier) is to overlook the more revolutionary shift taking place within the building itself. The new museum was housed in the repurposed Bankside Power Station, a massive hulk constructed at midcentury. While there had been an affinity between postwar art and industrial architecture at least since Donald Judd bought his loft building on New York’s Spring Street in 1968, Tate Modern was the first major international institution to employ such a space. Moreover, it was the first to shift from a scale that was merely industrial to one that was truly infrastructural—designed not to house an army of workers but to contain machinery so vast that it could power a city. Herzog & de Meuron cannily exploited this unprecedented magnitude, devoting almost half the footprint of the existing building to one cavernous room. Dubbed Turbine Hall because it had housed the enormous oil-fired engines of the original plant, the room offered 35,520 square feet of exhibition area—more than the total gallery space of many major museums—in a single narrow rectangle capped by a ceiling 115 feet high.

In fact, the space seemed almost too vast to use; it was difficult to imagine how the museum’s collection might be exhibited within it. But this turned out to be the point. Largely thanks to decades of conservatism, the Tate’s collection was notoriously lacking in the kind of modern and contemporary art that once seemed too experimental to bother with but that is now more or less enshrined in the Western canon and therefore extremely expensive to collect, particularly for an institution reliant on public funding. One solution was to shift the definition of “contemporary” art from the recent past to the near future, allowing it to be made to order rather than bought at auction. Turbine Hall, in other words, was intended less as a showcase for existing works than as an open invitation for artists to create—literally—the next big thing. As British critic Rowan Moore crowed at the time: “The Tate long lagged behind its rival museums. . . . Now it has leapfrogged them. Whatever art the new century produces, it will look better here than in New York’s Museum of Modern Art or the Pompidou in Paris.”

And the art did look very good there indeed. Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, 2003, which transmuted the gallery into an auratic confection of lights, mirrors, and mist and enthralled a reported two million visitors, accelerating the artist’s rise to international art stardom, was followed by more than a decade’s worth of immensely popular and staggeringly ambitious commissions that would have been impossible to realize anywhere else. Of course, not everyone saw this as a positive development. Architects worried that Turbine Hall’s empty expanse represented a kind of capitulation, with their field wholly ceding the stage to artists; Rem Koolhaas dismissed it as a “massive nonspace” in these pages. Art critics and historians fretted that the hall was too spectacular, shifting the museum from a space of contemplation into one of vapid entertainment.

But at its best, Tate Modern has transformed the museum from a center of display to a center of production, animating the institution as an experimental laboratory. If Gehry gave us the Bilbao Effect, whereby iconic architecture brands a museum and puts its hometown on the map, Herzog & de Meuron invented what might be called the Tate Effect, in which a museum’s architecture becomes a catalyst for the invention of as yet unimagined art forms.

And along with new art forms have come new kinds of experience. It has become a cliché of museum architecture to talk about bringing the vitality of urban life into the institution; such language is often little more than a coded reference to revenue-generating programs for dining and shopping. But Herzog & de Meuron succeeded in truly bringing urban space into their building: Because of Turbine Hall’s size, open-ended use, and unrestricted access, the local council zoned it as a public city street. All this meant that when Herzog & de Meuron returned to design Tate Modern’s new wing, which opened this past June in response to ever-increasing visitor numbers and a collection that has grown apace, the resulting project was much more than the latest in a string of recent museum expansions. It is a reinvention of a reinvention, offering a unique opportunity not only to test the original premise that the museum can be a driving force in the evolution of contemporary art but to track, in real time, the alchemical conjunction of art and architecture that is emerging as one of the defining characteristics of culture in the twenty-first century.

Herzog & de Meuron, Tate Modern, 2000, London. Turbine Hall. Photo: Paul Simpson/Flickr.

FOR ALL THE DISCUSSION about Turbine Hall, it was arguably the adjacent Boiler House, which had harbored smaller machinery and was adapted to provide three levels of more traditional gallery space in the original building, that directly necessitated Tate Modern’s subsequent expansion. Along with their initial emphasis on major commissions, the curators had sought to build an expanded historical collection that addressed geographic and gender gaps in the modernist canon, a mandate that was particularly urgent in the former seat of a colonial empire. From the very first installation in 2000 in the Boiler House, the curators have presented the collection thematically rather than chronologically to underscore this openness, replacing the story of a single, dominant evolution with a multiplicity of historical narratives. Advocates of this now increasingly popular approach have cited the unquestionable benefits of opening up restrictive canons; opponents have raised fears of decontextualization, pointing out that the erasure of history does as much disservice to marginalized figures as to anyone else. But this curatorial strategy carries refreshingly concrete architectural implications: Ideally, multiple passages through time would be redoubled by multiple trajectories through space, with visitors offered the freedom to move through an exhibition in as many ways as possible.

Yet this flexibility is precisely what Herzog & de Meuron failed to provide in the 2000 building. The galleries in the Boiler House, as all too many squeezed visitors know, are arranged in strict enfilade. This may have been a natural response to the geometry of the existing building; after all, the most expedient way to move people through a long, narrow rectangle is back and forth along two straight lines. But the almost classical rigor of the plans suggests a deeper desire to match the emptiness of Turbine Hall with an equally restrained hand in the Boiler House, as if seeking a degree zero of architectural authorship. Not only are the galleries arranged in a linear progression, their materiality is nearly identical and their doors are often exactly on axis; visitors can often look through four or five perfectly aligned doorways, clear from one end of the galleries to the other.

As if responding to the uniformity of the older galleries, the exhibition spaces in the Switch House, which now rises on the south side of the building and is the only component of Tate Modern that is entirely new construction, are a study in difference. Above the lobby, Herzog & de Meuron have designed each of the three gallery levels to have a different height, and have given each ceiling a distinct materiality. Level two has an exposed mechanical and structural grid; level three is lent a scalloped, slightly abstract texture by a coffered plasterboard ceiling; and level four is spanned by luminous light boxes. Moreover, rooms of widely varied dimensions—from intimate alcoves that seem designed for just one or two artworks, to open expanses that could easily contain a small exhibition—are interconnected in a variable network. Some galleries are dead ends, with only one door serving as both entrance and exit, while others function as circulation nodes, with openings in every direction. The central gallery on the third floor, for example, is served by no fewer than four doors, no two aligned and each leading to an adjacent space of a different scale and character. In a building as large and complex as the Switch House, the arrangement of doorways might seem so basic a consideration as to hardly merit critical commentary, but the impact of such design moves is in fact all the more profound for their fundamental nature. Indeed, Herzog & de Meuron’s approach recalls Leon Battista Alberti’s reminder to Renaissance architects that “the ancients in their public buildings always left a great many . . . apertures” and that for such commissions “it is also convenient to place the doors in such a manner that they may lead to as many parts of the edifice as possible.” This kind of interconnected plan may well be the original model of public space, predating by centuries the rigid formal hierarchies that have come to define institutional buildings.

This social dimension is redoubled by the paths of circulation within the Switch House. The design for the Boiler House effectively divided horizontal and vertical movement, connecting floors with a compact stairway and a set of central escalators whose identical placement on each level echoed the repetitive qualities of the plans themselves. The gallery levels of the new Switch House are instead joined by a varied sequence of oversize stairs that draw visitors up and into the galleries along multiple pathways, interacting with the building’s eccentric, faceted geometry to create an array of balconies, landings, and other open spaces for visitors to casually encounter one another or to simply rest or wander.

Taken together, these Switch House spaces offer an important lesson in the real meaning of two buzzwords in museum building today: flexibility and activation. We often assume that a flexible space is necessary to activate viewers, and increasingly this translates into a desire for galleries that are physically reconfigurable, even literally animated, as in the dynamic “smart galleries” that Rem Koolhaas proposed for the Fondazione Prada in Milan (ultimately unrealized) or the mechanized armature of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Shed in New York (which recently began construction). Too often, this approach offers the illusion of variation but actually produces a sequence of overdetermined conditions, each different from the last but all equally rigid (and, well, robotic). But Herzog & de Meuron’s design shows that a thoughtful plan can sketch out many different preconditions for occupation at once, realizing architecture’s inherent ability to contain simultaneously a multitude of possibilities for inhabitation. Simply put, the architects remind us that buildings are activated by people, rather than the other way around.

Herzog & de Meuron, Tate Modern addition, 2016, London. The Tanks. Photo: Iwan Baan.

THE IDEA THAT A SPACE could be activated by its inhabitants was also fundamental to many of the most radical art practices of the postwar era, and Herzog & de Meuron’s own development has been deeply informed by such work. The duo have spoken openly and often of formative encounters at the Kunstmuseum Basel, particularly with the works of Donald Judd, whose Six Cold Rolled Steel Boxes, 1969, was exhibited there in 1975, and Joseph Beuys, who was shown in 1977. Minimalism and Fluxus proved to be a suggestive combination—the former’s emphasis on the spatial interaction between object and viewer was inflected by the strong social and perfomative dimensions of the latter—and their influence can be traced through many of Herzog & de Meuron’s projects into their design for the Switch House.

There is a fascinating recursiveness at work here, however, since these same art practices developed in direct dialogue with architecture in the first place. Tate Modern’s curators have explicitly acknowledged this in the inaugural collection display in the Switch House’s second-floor galleries, “Between Object and Architecture” (organized by Mark Godfrey, Andrea Lissoni, and Catherine Wood). Here, exhibiting a wide range of works dating from the early 1960s through the present, the curators demonstrate the ways in which artists have used architecture as everything from a compositional model to a material source to a stage for intervention. Though the general outlines of this story are well known by now (the ur-text being Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”), to see the narrative unfold in a space that is itself so profoundly informed by art is unusual.

Herzog & de Meuron’s galleries bring long-simmering tensions between art and architecture to a boil. Take the case of Minimalism, for example, amply represented in this show by Judd, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, and others. As soon as these artists moved from making autonomous objects to interrogating the relationship between subject and object, their work became, in a sense, entirely reliant on architecture as a frame for these interactions. This dependence quickly became a source of anxiety, and many of these artists did their best to keep architecture at arm’s length. Even as he rhapsodized about the power of “literal space,” Judd dismissed most architectural production of the day as “affected design.” Morris described “a delicate situation” in which “the space of the room itself is a structuring factor” in his work, and wondered whether it might be possible to “change the terms” by finding another context in which to exhibit—“a space without architecture as background and reference.” Even Michael Fried, in his famous screed against Minimalism, poked fun at this seeming unwillingness to own up to a debt to architecture, quipping that “the concept of a room is, mostly clandestinely, important to literalist [Minimalist] art and theory.”

All this added up to a preference for architectural neutrality, whether in the form of raw, unimproved industrial space or white-cube galleries—the exhibition space as we know it today. And as Minimalism gave way to the expanded field of post-Minimalism and the even wider category of installation art, architecture became even further removed. As Krauss pointed out in the account of the 1976 “Rooms” exhibition at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York that underpins the second portion of her 1977 “Notes on the Index,” almost any installation could be understood as taking up an indexical relationship to the architecture in which it was presented: Just as an indexical sign such as a footprint offers a physical trace of an absent presence, the installation brings “the building into the consciousness of the viewer in the form of a ghost,” as architecture inevitably “submits to the logic of effacement.”

Indexical works abound in “Between Object and Architecture,” from Morris’s own Location Piece, 1973, a lead-and-aluminum-sheathed panel with four numerical dials that are to be changed to register its distance from the walls, floor, and ceiling; to Lynda Benglis’s Quartered Meteor, a 1975 lead and steel edition of a sculpture originally created by pouring polyurethane foam into the corner of a room; to Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Floor), 1994–95, a polyester resin cast of fourteen rectangular sections of a wooden substrate. Each work takes architecture as a found condition, a kind of neutral starting point for an artistic operation; displayed in a white cube, they might simply conjure architecture as a spectral origin. But in Herzog & de Meuron’s galleries, they are confronted by architecture as a living presence, sometimes resulting in a palpable frisson. In the current installation, for example, the rigorous grid of Whiteread’s floor panels are in dialogue not just with the stacked boxes of Judd’s nearby Untitled, 1980, and the regular stripes of Daniel Buren’s One of the Possibilities, 1973, but with an ingeniously interwoven grid of mechanical, electrical, and structural systems (ducts punched through cutouts in steel I beams, fluorescent lights precisely aligned along ribbons of conduit) that constitutes the gallery ceiling. While such exposed infrastructure is normally presented as raw or found or merely revealed, here it becomes a highly composed formal element. If Tate Modern’s globalized collection and thematic organization have finally rendered the white-box typology obsolete by putting a new premium on flexibility and variety, the idiosyncrasy of Herzog & de Meuron’s galleries, in turn, suggests opportunities to reframe these works not just historically but visually and spatially. The Switch House may even offer a model of embracing heterogeneity without necessarily producing the decontextualization that results from leveling disparate works and cultures. The new galleries suggest that curators and artists working today can look to architecture itself as a way of exploring specificity and difference.

If only the same could be said of the so-called participatory art sprinkled throughout this exhibition and showcased almost exclusively in another collection display called “Performer and Participant” on the level above. Much of this work, too, relies on the sterility of the white cube as a neutral backdrop to frame staged activities and interactions, perhaps most hyperbolically in the case of relational aesthetics, which staked its entire claim to radicalism on introducing activities into the gallery that would be utterly mundane if taking place in any other space of everyday life. The Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum’s Capsules (NBP x me-you), 2000, for example, builds on the Neo-concrete tradition of merging art and life, comprising a series of cushioned steel mesh chambers that, we are told, are “designed to be occupied by visitors, who become performers,” free to explore “convivial spaces that allow unrestricted interaction.” But surely the same could be said of Herzog & de Meuron’s building? In a telling move, the curators chose to place this work outside the galleries, adjacent to two of the most dynamic spaces in the Switch House. Around the corner from Capsules, a small café, which has been tucked into a wedge of space in the floor plan and affords a mix of high tables and cleverly built-in furniture, provides a continuous hub of activity. Across the open landing, a long row of windows offer manifold views of the surrounding city; thick concrete window frames double as benches and are continually appropriated by visitors in ones, twos, and threes, for reading, resting, and conversation. In the vacuum of the white cube, merging art and life seemed like magic. But when the museum welcomes social life inside, this kind of work falls flat. Why crawl into a steel cage looking for conviviality when you can find it over coffee a few steps away? This transformation of the museum may not be entirely positive (at the very least, urban public life is now clearly inseparable from some forms of consumption, as the numerous cafés and shops dispersed throughout the Switch House attest), but it certainly issues a challenge to which artists must respond. For as much as contemporary art seeks to grapple with globalization—both its flattening and its polarizations—it’s probably true that architecture has, for better or for worse, proved more responsive to these conditions, at least on the ground and in the everyday. The new Tate brings this confrontation between adaptation and autonomy into full relief.

Ricardo Basbaum, Capsules (NBP x me-you), 2000, steel, fabric, polystyrene foam, vinyl wall texts, booklets, audio. Installation view, “Between Object and Architecture,” 2016, Level 2, Switch House, Tate Modern, London. Photo: Mark Heathcote.

IF THE SWITCH HOUSE GALLERIES point to new problems and possibilities in architecture’s framing of art, they also present a largely adversarial relationship between the two fields—perhaps inevitably, given that much of the recent history of their interaction has unfolded as a cycle of provocation and response. But another set of possibilities seems to be percolating below, where the enormous silos that previously stored the power plant’s fuel have been recast as the Tanks, “the world’s first museum spaces dedicated to live and performance art.” At first glance, these are the spaces in the new wing most similar to Turbine Hall; both are similarly minimalist retrofittings of cavernous and raw infrastructural spaces. (If shorter than Turbine Hall at only twenty-one feet tall, the Tanks are still massive, containing a total of more than sixteen thousand square feet of floor area.) Both, too, are similarly open-ended in their programming. (“Live” and “performance” are such broad categories that they are hardly limiting.)

The similarities end there, however. Turbine Hall was designed to intentionally maximize the visual impact of the vast volume. Long horizontal windows on the upper gallery levels project outward into the hall like boxes in an opera, providing a vantage point from which viewers sitting passively may gaze down into the space below, and Herzog & de Meuron also went to great lengths to dematerialize the new steel they were required to add for structural reinforcement, tucking it close to existing columns and beams and painting both the same matte black. They explicitly conceived of the hall’s skylight as “immaterialized” and thus a device to “cut away the dominance of the steel.” Though the gesture of introducing an urban street into the building was undeniably powerful, the architecture that rises above it on all sides deliberately frames itself as a visual attraction.

The overwhelming impression offered by the Tanks, on the other hand, is of architecture undoing its own image, unraveling into pure materiality. Contemporary architecture is often under enormous pressure—not just from artists but from developers, politicians, and CEOs—to suppress its complexity in order to resolve itself into an image, whether one of neutral backdrop or of global icon. If the slightly mannered angularity of the Switch House nods in this direction, the Tanks precipitate into wildly unresolved contradictions. As in Turbine Hall, new structures are necessarily combined with old; because the Switch House rises directly above the Tanks, the columns supporting its foundation must pass through them. But rather than the hall’s discrete doubling of steel, here we see a study in concrete contrast. The new columns, sloped in accordance with the angled facade above, come crashing down into the Tanks, their eccentric geometry utterly disrupting the orthogonal grid of existing structure both horizontally and vertically. And because they coexist in the same space but hold up entirely different structures, the dual systems produce weird doublings, mismatches, and apparent redundancies: Here, three columns are clustered absurdly close, two new ones leaning crazily to either side of one original vertical shaft; there, another new column lands a few feet in front of the South Tank’s door, nearly obscuring the entrance. Since the Tanks themselves were never meant to be occupied, much of Herzog & de Meuron’s design is reduced to the brute act of enabling inhabitation, with doors and passageways cut through thick slabs of concrete, jagged edges and contractors’ markings sometimes still visible. All this exists alongside uncanny evidence of the space’s previous function, for example the squat stairways (presumably once providing access to former mechanical rooms) that rise nonsensically along several walls, the apertures to which they once led now filled in but still clearly legible as rectangular patches of lighter gray, unweathered concrete. The space is so profoundly unfinished, so utterly contingent and ad hoc, that walking through it feels something like inhabiting a construction site. Here, architecture is not just flexible but formless. In a sense, the Tanks finally grant Morris’s wish for a setting without architecture by replacing “architecture” with a raw palette of material, space, structure, and movement.

Tate Modern

It is a palette that artists already seem to be exploring. In the East Tank, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s multiscreen video installation Primitive, 2009, uses the room’s eccentric geometry (with two videos projected directly onto the curved concrete walls) to spatially echo the fractured narrative structure of the work. In the other rooms, watching viewers dance with their own shadows in Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s projected-light installation Séance de Shadow II (bleu), 1998, or observing them explore the infinite permutations of the hinged doors on Charlotte Posenenske’s Concept Revolving Vanes/Mobile Walls, 1967–68/2016, is almost like seeing them prepare to explore the rest of the museum, building a heightened awareness of their movements, their surroundings, and one another. But for now, it is the intervals between the works that retain the most power—the unpredictable interplay between bodies and concrete portending experiences still to come.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.

Read Daniel Birnbaum’s essay on the opening of Tate Modern (April 2000).