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‘A museum’s architecture shouldn’t be its best exhibit, but at the Tate Modern it steals the show’

The extension by Herzog & de Meuron builds on the gallery’s role as public space

‘Art Changes, We Change’: the Tate Modern’s new motto, proudly emblazoned on the gallery, marks the opening of its long-awaited Switch House extension in June. Now the world’s most-visited museum of modern and contemporary art, no one could have predicted, when the remodelled Bankside Power Station first opened its doors 16 years ago, that visitor numbers would so rapidly reach five million per year – the institution itself expected two million.

Art has changed. If there is one certainty about contemporary art, it is that it lacks any specificity in form, size or medium. Being a non-unified type, artworks require a diverse range of spatial conditions, from large halls and white boxes to intimate rooms and black boxes. The modern museum finds itself having to provide all sorts of configurations, all of them at once and ever-evolving. These range from the more traditional and inanimate paintings and sculptures to sound installations, video screenings, oversize experiments and live performances.

Herzog & de Meuron's Tate extension

Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate extension

Source: Hufton + Crow

Switch House prides itself on providing the ‘world’s first museum spaces for live art, from performance and film to installations and interactive sculptures’. For Herzog & de Meuron, the architect behind both phases of the industrial building’s transformation, part of the extension consists of unveiling and adapting previously out-of-reach spaces in the original power station. The three cylindrical tanks that used to hold its oil reserves connect directly to the Turbine Hall. Slanted concrete columns strengthen the existing structure, while these subterranean tanks become the extension’s new foundations – physically and conceptually. The tanks make a spectacular addition to the gallery, both for their history and unique atmosphere. 

‘A new north-south passage cuts across the building at street level, connecting the riverside with Switch House’s main entrance and turning the previously dead-end ‘balcony’ of the Turbine Hall into a lively bridge’

As Jacques Herzog explains, the extension’s primary aim is to create a ‘building conglomerate that appears as one thing, not as a phase one and phase two’. A new north-south passage cuts across the building at street level, connecting the riverside with Switch House’s main entrance and turning the previously dead-end ‘balcony’ of the Turbine Hall into a lively bridge where Ai Weiwei’s Tree is on display. Coming in from the Thames side, Sumner Street at the other end of the gallery is almost immediately visible – a radically different impression to the previous configuration.

If the building felt somewhat lopsided before, the additional southern volumes rebalance it, with the Turbine Hall naturally occupying the heart of the gallery – as intended by the architects when submitting their proposal for phase one. On the third floor there was just enough space underneath the roof structure to insert a bridge connecting the Boiler House to its new neighbour. Far from breaking up the hall’s majestic volume  or obstructing the vista from  the ground, this link makes complete sense – it eases the visitor journey and offers yet another perspective of the  grand hall. 

The distinctive feature of the extension is the generous – borderline oversize – circulation spaces. These are, ostensibly, the prominent ingredient. The staircases differ in shape and move about on the floor plans, encouraging visitors to explore and producing a ‘vertical boulevard’ to which the galleries are attached. Along the route, a series of smaller nooks blur the boundary between corridor, display space and screening room. At times, the gap between floor-slab perimeters and facade brickwork creates impressive double- and triple-height spaces on the pyramid’s lower levels.


Herzog & de Meuron's Tate extension

Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate extension

Source: Hufton + Crow

When the flooring reaches the building’s edge, long, flat cushions invite visitors to stop and lounge within the heavy structure’s concrete frame.  A diverse range of seating arrangements disseminated throughout provide an array of original spaces which cater for a slightly more intimate scale. On the lower ground floor, the concrete steps extend out to become small auditorium-like seats. When the monumental spiral staircase reaches the second floor, a circular timber bench is inserted at its centre, hugging the concrete curve.  Further up, as the surface areas shrink, programmes are more audience specific – offices, members’ room, Tate Exchange – and visitors are expected to use the lifts, so the stairs are greatly reduced in size. Even so, the parapet wall curves into a simple concrete bench before hitting the floor. 

Everywhere, there is space for waiting, meeting, sitting, being. While the extension effectively increases the museum’s floor area by 60 per cent, most of the programmatic infill relates to the provision of public space. The exhibition spaces are concentrated in the lower half of the tower, but all levels – the ground floor and the smaller upper six storeys – are dedicated to public gathering, commercial activities and event spaces. In the first intervention, Herzog and de Meuron’s stroke of genius was to transform the Turbine Hall into a vast public piazza – and, naturally, the popularity of the Tate Modern seems closely linked to this unprecedented space for the display of art. Switch House builds on this premise, it is first and foremost a vast arena for exchange. Culture minister Ed Vaizey called the gallery an ‘incredible public space’, while Lord Browne, chairman of the Tate, highlighted that it is ‘great public spaces’ that build ‘great cities’ because those are where people come together, adding that ‘The new Tate Modern sits firmly in that tradition. It has become a place to celebrate and share the uplifting experience of today’s great art.’

‘Are cultural institutions falling into the trap of doing what they think is expected of them by people who are not necessarily interested in their content in the first place?’

The experience of appreciating great art can, however, end up being difficult amid a busy crowd. Museums are constantly attempting to ‘reach out to new audiences’ – as highlighted by London’s mayor Sadiq Khan at a press conference for Switch House’s opening – and it sometimes feels as though they are attempting to engage with a public that is not that interested. Are cultural institutions falling into the trap of doing what they think is expected of them by people who are not necessarily interested in their content in the first place? Museums and galleries have become a place to be, a destination that promises experience and entertainment. What should cultural institutions do when they are a victim of their own popular success? Still, it feels as though the museum’s essence is being diluted. Switch House offers coffee shops, a restaurant, a wine  bar and a large bookshop on the street front that can remain open long after the rest of the building has closed. 

The permeability of the street-level north-south passage not only allows for a more fluid circulation inside, it also connects the museum to its surroundings. On the southern extremity, just outside the bookshop, a large clover-shaped public terrace hosts the café’s tables on sunny days, revealing the outline of the cylindrical tanks below in the basement. This is the only point where the museum spills outdoors, overlooking both Holland and Sumner streets, extending into a small garden to the east.

The original premise was that the extension would connect to Neo Bankside’s street-level ‘public garden’. Indeed, under the Section 106 agreement and in addition to affordable housing benefits, the luxury development had ‘created a significant new area of public realm to the north, which was acquired and subsequently gifted to Tate Modern by Native Land and Grosvenor for inclusion in the open-space proposals associated with the gallery’s extension’. Ironically, the extension’s two exterior piazzas sit on the west and the south-east sides but provide Neo Bankside with a concrete wall – a delightful concrete wall by Vogt – immediately opposite the residential units’ main access point.

Herzog & de Meuron's Tate extension

Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate extension

Source: Hufton + Crow

The architects’ choice of material seems to further disconnect the building from its immediate context. Earlier proposals comprised stacked-up glass boxes, coming together as an overall truncated pyramidal volume not dissimilar to the final iteration’s shape; now, bricks confer a sense of solidity to the structure, an opaque and hefty rocklike mass in stark contrast with the glass-clad surroundings of Southwark’s recent developments. Consequently, the Switch House’s brick facade becomes a natural and contemporary addition in keeping with Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station, enhancing the effortless merging of the two volumes into a unified whole both inside and out. At the bottom of the ziggurat, the bricks form a tightly knit skin and, as it rises, the spacing between the blocks forms a perforated lattice, allowing light into the interior’s circulation and event spaces.

At the top, the 360-degree open terrace  is the most welcome distraction from the art – and a refreshing change from the usually enclosed sky gardens in the city’s skyscrapers. With views plunging into the interiors of the high-end residential towers opposite, only a few weeks after the opening, small plaques were added to the viewing platform – ‘please respect our neighbours’ privacy’ – and many more blinds on the Neo Bankside facades were pulled down. 

‘While the orchestration of surprise encounters can be a nice addition, the overriding feeling is that of a disjointed journey with increased opportunities to be distracted –  and a few irritating dead ends’

The windows throughout the museum offer pleasant views into the Turbine Hall and out to the city, helping visitors to orient themselves. Autonomous from the brick veil and running parallel to the Turbine Hall, the additional exhibition spaces are bright and generous. The displays feel more fragmented than in the Boiler House as they blur with the circulation spaces and force the audience to curate their own journey, picking and choosing with which displays to interact. According to Pierre de Meuron, the idea is to ‘offer unexpected opportunities for both artists and curators to present artworks outside the “official” display areas of the galleries’.  While the orchestration of surprise encounters can be a nice addition to the visitors’ route, the overriding feeling is that of a disjointed journey with increased opportunities to be distracted –  and a few irritating dead ends. And, the art on display was slightly underwhelming. 

In this self-contained piece of city, the public spaces upstage the galleries with their dynamism. It is an impressive building, even if the light is at times flattened by the perforated brick veil, making it a bit grey; even though the windows are small and frames heavy and the lifts too narrow. If too much capital leads to too much spectacle, it’s difficult to say whether the right balance has been struck between the gallery’s service to contemporary art and its catering to a growing audience for whom the art is a sideshow. A museum’s architecture shouldn’t be its best exhibit, but here it steals the show.

Switch House

Architects: Herzog & de Meuron

Structural engineer: Ramboll

Photographs: Hufton + Crow, Iwan Baan and Richard Bryant