Tate Modern is the busiest modern-art gallery in the world with 5 million visitors per year hence it is no surprise it is expanding. In fact it has been for a while now and there is a small architectural exhibition on its lower level, in front of the cloakroom with scale models, drawings etc, documenting it. In the past it had caught my eye briefly but I never paid that much attention to it as the project’s completion seemed to fade into the distant future. Well, 2016 is not that far away any more and actually the first part of the extension was delivered to the public six months ago.
The Tate Tanks are currently entered from the turbine hall. The visitor has to go through not one but two screens that frame an intermediate space which attempts to incorporate characteristics from both the existing building and the new one that will be placed on top of the tanks. Unfortunately this entrance-hall fails to successfully connect the two spaces and ends up feeling rather awkward. A plain glass screen on turbine hall’s side-wall seems a peculiar non-entrance for what the architects claim to be an event of a building.
Still there is much more that seems weird in this space’s layout. To start, two qualities that seem to clash are found here, that of a space that existed previously but had a different use (the original oil tanks), and that of the footprint of a building that has not been built yet. So, it is quite difficult to evaluate the Tanks because both qualities they incorporate compete with each other having not been manipulated very carefully. In fact the original tanks are still right there. The concrete walls are bare revealing the way they were moulded. There are numbers marking the different levels of oil that was contained and traces of bolts and rods possibly needed when the tanks functioned as containers. There are even little scribbles on the walls, construction notes made by the surveyors or the builders. This architectural realism is a very deliberate choice that aims to maintain the raw aesthetic that is so fashionable in design nowadays.
I partly enjoyed this candid approach because it reminded me of how I preferred my rough work-models to the carefully-cut final ones for the buildings I designed in university. This love of rough aesthetics is really not that much of a novelty though, as it is shared by most architects. Thus the Tanks’ style is almost a wink to all designers and ultimately seems a tiny bit pretentious. Especially since it looks as though the architects hardly intervened apart from the polished floor, and the ventilation and light fittings.
Then there are the new tilted columns that most probably are there to support the building that will be erected exactly above the Tanks. Having seen the scale-model of the new edifice, these columns obviously derive from its angular geometry and they are designed in this way to reflect its aesthetic. Regardless of the pretentiousness that I detected in the general lack of architectural intervention, I rather liked the feeling that the Tanks evoke as a space. However I totally disliked the way that the new building looks on paper. To me it looks ugly. A twisted form that aspires to be contemporary and exciting by juxtaposing the iconic industrial building but only sits next to it like a foreign object. Furthermore the attempt to relate to the soon-to-be-old Tate Modern by the use of a similar red brick is rather superficial. Even though I sound quite harsh, I write all that with a hint of doubt as I cannot put my finger on it before visiting the actual finished product. Who knows, maybe I am unfair and when the new building is finished it will comprise a balanced whole along with the tanks and the old building. it all remains to be seen.
However, going back to the ‘architectural realism’ that has been chosen for the Tanks I believe it goes a bit too far for yet another reason. Walking through the galleries I saw that the walls were quite mouldy, in fact there were visible drops of water running on them. To be more blunt there were actually a number of buckets collecting the water falling from the ceiling in various places and signs ‘mind the wet floors’ everywhere. What struck me as odd was that it was not raining at all outside. Looking at the texture of the concrete walls that documents the erosion of decades of exposure to moisture, I could not but wonder if this a mistake caused by inadequate insulation or an eagerness to be true to the tanks’ original state that ironically backfired.