May 12: the Bankside alligator
2012/05/12 § Leave a comment
On this day in 2000 the Tate Modern opened in its new home, the former Bankside Power Station.
When construction of the Power Station was approved in 1947 bowlers popped all over the English capital. Nobody liked the idea of a big industrial plant so close to the center of London-towne; opinions ranged from “blimey! but at least the barmy pile on the dodgy side of the Thames lousy with brothels and bear pits” to “egads Sir Nigel, what a shambolic stonker!” One poetically fussy lord gasped in Parliament that the big brute opposite Wren’s fine dome would be akin to “introducing an alligator into the water-lily pond in one’s garden.” It did, and does, provide a startling contrast: Deco-ish rectilinear brickiness vs. marble Baroque curvaceousness. To his credit, architect Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) (also of the 1903 Liverpool Cathedral, 1929 K2 telephone kiosks, 1929 Battersea Power Station) managed a severe and hugely scaled building with really fine details, and he made the schmutz-spewing tower shorter than the dome. Probably to the credit of his talent, when the building was taken off-line in 1981, it wasn’t immediately torn down. It sat, empty, waiting for a new raison d’être.
Enter the Tate galleries in 1994 and a wonderful reuse plan from Herzog & de Meuron that largely preserved the exterior of the building but which made the significant addition of the great long lantern at the very top of the structure. It is not very significant in the daytime, but at night glows. Since the St. Paul’s side has been so built up after the war, the Bankside/Tate is now a sort of quiet answer to a number of nondescript office towers that crowd the church, and is also an anchor for redevelopment. The huge machinery hall is left largely open: vast, intimidating, overwhelming and cold when it’s empty, a wonderland of possibilities full of site-specific art, although the Muse can do without the scary spider and definitely does not need to get up close and personal with the Evil Eye of Sauron. But she can forgive these missteps here, seeing as she is very fond of projects that save fine old industrial buildings, and hopes you are, too.
Image: the Tate Modern on a dreary day (Clio’s)