Published: May 2009
By Neville Wakefield
British artists may be causing a <i>Sensation</i> this side of the Atlantic, but at home the problem could be that they aren't naughty enough. As the Tate Modern opens across the river from the venerable Tate Gallery, neighborhood residents are wondering if contemporary art will spell the end of the area's gritty charm
Rising above the jumble that is the south London skyline, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Battersea and Bankside power stations dominate their side of the Thames. But for all their imposing presence, these twin megaliths have fared little better than the once-ubiquitous red telephone booths for which Scott is most famous. By the time I was a teenager, Battersea Power Station functioned primarily as the tethering post for the giant inflated pig featured on the cover of Pink Floyd's album Animals. In those days, it was hard not to regard the helium-filled creature as a late-seventies version of the zeppelin--and the derelict power-station chimney to which it was moored as seventies Britain's own crummy answer to the soaring mast of the Empire State Building. Since then, the surrounding area has been transformed, along with much of Victorian London, into a sea of window boxes and upscale restaurants--including one of chef terrible Marco Pierre-White's early ventures. As for the building itself, one developer attempted to turn it into a theme park, then ran out of cash. For now at least, the Battersea Power Station seems incapable of moving out from under the shadow of the pig.
Just a few miles upriver, Scott's Bankside Power Station looms over a formerly neglected corner of the borough of Southwark. The imposing, muscular structure has long pegged the area as working-class industrial. That's about to change. Bankside will finally open its doors again in May, as the Tate Gallery completes its transformation of the power plant into a new museum.
"Sixty years ago Peggy Guggenheim proposed establishing a museum of modern art in London. It never happened," says Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries. New York has MOMA, Paris has the Jeu de Paume, but London has never had a museum devoted to 20th-century art. Significant shows have tended either to pass London by or to be housed in less-than-perfect spaces at the National Portrait Gallery or the Royal Academy of Arts. This month, the Tate Gallery itself is being relaunched as the Tate Britain. Expanded and spiffed up, it will finally be able to display most of its impressive collection of British art from the 16th century to the present. When asked why it has taken so long to create space for a collection that had outgrown its existing building by a prodigious 85 percent, Serota pauses before remarking, "It's a big cultural question. These things move in waves, and at the moment the visual arts are making up for lost time."
Certainly Serota's 12-year tenure has coincided with an efflorescence of British art unparalleled since the swinging sixties. Then, such artists as Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, and Peter Blake allied their art-making practices with the groove of the era to make London, albeit briefly, the capital of Pop. The current climate of artistic optimism shares much of the nationalistic and metropolitan pride of that time. Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, and Sarah Lucas are the new household names, and controversies over the UK's most coveted award to artists under 50, the Turner Prize, fuel the sort of patriotic debate normally reserved for wartime. To gauge the extent to which young British art and its proponents have captured the public imagination, one need look no further than a recent poll that ranked Tracey Emin's drunken television appearance after she won the Turner Prize as one of the top 10 "moments" in TV history. While Serota acknowledges that "at Bankside people should be aware they are in London rather than Paris, Berlin, or New York," he insists that the decision to expand is not a response to the climate of the times, but rather a "recognition that there were several generations of British artists who had made exceptional work."
That view is shared by Lars Nittve, the newly appointed director of the Tate Modern. He regards the building as an opportunity to give British artists of recent generations--Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg--greater international prominence. "The fact that this building is happening now," he says, "not ten or twenty years ago, has a great deal to do with changes in the public's perception of contemporary art." It's indeed notable that, at a time when the mere whiff of elephant dung is deemed probable cause for the withdrawal of federal and state funds this side of the Atlantic, London has chosen to celebrate its cultural renaissance to the tune of more than $220 million in tax and lottery money. And this even though the Tate Modern will showcase work by contemporary artists from all over the globe, who rarely, if ever, draw huge crowds.
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Bankside Building has been adapted from its original function by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who head one of Europe's leading young design firms. The integrity of the original building has been retained, along with many of the features that refer to its industrial past. Visitors enter by descending a ramp into the cathedral-like space of Turbine Hall, where a series of commissions will be displayed, beginning with new work by Louise Bourgeois. High overhead, the vast mobile gantries that once serviced the turbines have been turned over to the installation of art, giving the space a flavor that is decidedly more in keeping with the monolithic slabs of Richard Serra than the miniature string-and-wood constructions of Richard Tuttle. "The architects created fabulous spaces for the presentation of art," says Nittve. "You can show a number of different types of work within these galleries, not because they are physically flexible but because they are flexible in character--they can feel like a very elegant fine arts museum and be industrial and funky at the same time."
The most visible intervention in the fabric of Scott's original design is a two-story glass structure on top of the museum's roof. Meant to house some of the building's machinery as well as a new upscale restaurant, it fills the upper-level galleries with natural light during the day and provides an artificial nimbus at night. Adding to what Nittve terms the "signature value" of the museum is a new pedestrian bridge, designed by Sir Norman Foster and Sir Anthony Caro, that will span the Thames and link St. Paul's Cathedral to the South Bank. Fusing architecture, engineering, and sculpture, the Millennium Bridge will be the first Thames crossing created in more than 50 years. Its effect on the area is yet to be seen, but, as Nittve puts it, "Whereas most European cities benefit from narrow rivers that structure the city without splitting it, in London the river is simply too wide. The bridge will make crossing it a much calmer experience that may change the relationship between the two sides."
Like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum built in the unlikely city of Bilbao, or Renzo Piano's staggering, tanker-shaped NewMetropolis Science & Technology Center, "moored" in a former dock area of Amsterdam, the new Tate is conceived as part of a major urban-renewal scheme. Less than a quarter of a mile away from the Bankside site is Borough Market, one of the last commercial remnants of Victorian London. This area has provided the working-class south London atmosphere for such films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Entrapment. With the opening of the new Tate on the horizon, there are already signs of a shift away from the neighborhood's brick-and-mortar texture. Southwark Council has begun to rename or "brand" the adjacent area of Borough as Bankside, perhaps in an effort to capitalize on the area's newfound cultural gravity.
A short walk along the river, past Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the dry dock holding Sir Francis Drake's ship the Golden Hinde, is Vinopolis: City of Wine. One of the first major developments in the district, this Epcot Center of inebriation is a complex of shops and restaurants, and even has an art gallery. Nearby, facing Southwark Cathedral, where Shakespeare, Keats, and Dickens once prayed, the chic restaurant Fish! recently opened in a restored market shed. Whatever its popularity with style-conscious Londoners, the simple cuisine has won no converts from the Southwark clergy: the cathedral has its own riverside cafÈ, and Fish! has been condemned by the provost as "redevelopment of the worst sort."
Though the fate of Borough Market is already in the hands of developers, the part of the South Bank in the immediate vicinity of the new Tate is undergoing a more gradual change. "As I understand it," Nittve tells me, "Southwark Council is really looking for regeneration, not gentrification. Their policy in terms of redesigning the area is to do it not in a single gesture but in bits and pieces, so that it feels like an organic process. Whether that happens or market forces come to dominate regardless of policy remains to be seen." For the moment, at least, the council estates (low-income housing) surrounding the museum remain intact, and the vast majority of locals welcome the resurrection of a building they have lived with for so long as a derelict hulk. Aside from the optimistic neon of a new Holiday Inn, Southwark Street, a few blocks from the museum, retains its aura of timelessly cheerful Cockney gloom.
As I hail a cab back I'm thinking about Nittve's words and about the pig that momentarily glorified Scott's other magnificent power station. Since then Damien Hirst has sliced the pig in two, in a piece with a title that seems to augur the fate of Scott's power stations: This Little Piggy Went to Market. This Little Piggy Stayed at Home. And in an era that has little use for the industrial architecture of the past, it seems fitting that buildings like these should become symbols of the city's recently acquired cultural power. But my reverie is cut short. "They build all them buildings," remarks the cabbie as Bankside disappears in the rearview mirror and we join the Embankment, "but they can't get rid of this. This'll be here forever," he says, waving at the sea of traffic. He may well be right.
Neville Wakefield is a writer and curator living in New York.