After much anticipation and occasional bouts of political mud-slinging in various quarters of the press, Tate Modern’s extension, the Switch House, has opened to an eager public. Most seem more interested in hightailing it to the top for the sweeping views of the London skyline than exploring the galleries on various levels. If nothing else, this once again proves that vaunted architects Herzog & de Meuron – who undertook the design for the Tate’s first Bankside museum in the old power station- will always sacrifice flow design over aesthetics. Noting how inadequate the elevators are on only a mildly busy day tells you straight away that you should prepare for a 10-storey hike unless you want to spend most of your time playing musical lifts.
Nonetheless, the art – that’s what the place is supposed to be about right? – is housed in galleries on the lower levels of the tower, so if that’s your priority, it’s easy enough to forgo the joys of being prodded, pushed and generally treated in a rude manner by the view-crazed gangs of visitors who prove themselves alarmingly unaware of personal space.
One of the criticisms of the original building was that it sacrificed creating adequately spacious new gallery spaces in favour of keeping the spectacle of the vast turbine hall. Here there is no such problem. The new galleries vary in size and layout, making navigating them less formulaic than in many museums and they all feel airy and suitably grand to accommodate multiple large-scale art works.
The first manifestation of the building’s exhibition programme is an offer of variety that ticks all the right boxes, ensuring a balance of big names and hot newer talent in a programme of exhibitions each posited under current discourse trends in contemporary art; performance art, Feminism, architecture, urbanism etc. And under the Artists Rooms strand of the collection, there is also a solid solo exhibition of works by Louise Bourgeois spanning her long and illustrious career. Though you can’t help wondering whether it’s Tate policy to make sure Louise always get a big solo every time they open a new building…
The remaining spaces in the Switch House are devoted to a restaurant, various spaces to be filled with activities and events and the Members’ Lounge, perhaps Tate’s attempt to get in on London’s ongoing fashion for private members’ clubs. It’s a bright and breezy space not unlike a contemporary hotel lobby for use by those signed up to its members programme.
With the opening of the Switch House, which connects directly with the other building, via an impressive “sky bridge” through the uppermost level of the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern finally has the physical resources to mount a robust offer of simultaneous exhibitions that underscore its international reputation as one of the world’s top museums of modern and contemporary art.