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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.

Exhibition of Tate Modern's new building by Herzog & De Meuron to be finished in 2016

Exhibition of Tate Modern’s new building by Herzog & De Meuron to be finished in 2016,Top picture left: the new building/Right: part of its facade / Bottom right scale model of the whole building. Old-Tate Modern and pyramid-like extension behind it

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.

Left photo:entrance to the tanks from the turbine hall/ Middle photo: Second glass screen / Right photo: Between the two glass screens the awkward entrance space

Left photo:entrance to the tanks from the turbine hall/ Middle photo: Second glass screen / Right photo: Between the two screens an the awkward entrance space

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.

Rough aesthetics,mouldy walls, marks from previous use and notes by builders on the walls of the Tate tanks

Rough aesthetics,mouldy walls, marks from previous use and construction notes by builders on the walls of the Tate tanks

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.

The Tanks entrance and central hall. Blue buckets collecting water dripping from the roof in various places

The Tanks entrance and central hall. Blue buckets collecting water dripping from the roof in various places

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.

The actual galleries

The actual galleries

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.

Top left: the old columns / Top right: water dripping from the roof / Bottom left: old and new columns / Bottom right: diagonal new columns that will support the new building to be built above the Tanks

Top left: the old columns / Top right: water dripping from the roof / Bottom left: old and new columns / Bottom right: diagonal new columns that will support the new building to be built above the Tanks

Learn more about the new Tate Modern building here and here

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Throughout the years I have questioned the very existence of the Serpentine summer pavilion for various reasons. Most architects might consider me insolent for saying so but to some extent I believe that it is a waste of money and resources and it further glorifies the already established star-architects. Having said that I also have to admit that the whole concept of a folly is to stretch the limits of architecture which often are narrowed by budgets, client needs and the particularities of each site. An architectural folly is what the name implies, a bit of madness. It is the utter conceptualisation of architecture, hence there is a reason for its existence. It exists attempting to elevate mundane construction materials to devices that urge us to consciously feel and think about the way we inhabit places. 

An invitation to design a Serpentine pavilion is a sort of validation within the architectural world, like an award. Definitely it is additional advertising for its already famous designers but is it also a trend-setting device? A contemporary architectural manifesto? I guess it is all of the above and that explains the large number of people visiting it every year. Architects in particular love examining it from every possible point of view in order to come up with a verdict on its success or failure and this is a typical architectural chit-chat for the summer.

This year the pavilion was designed by Herzog & de Meuron the famous Swiss architect-duo, in collaboration with Ai Weiwei equally accomplished Chinese artist.(The three of them have collaborated in the past producing the Beijing national stadium also referred to as the bird’s nest) Their concept was to create a non-building turning the pavilion into an excavation covered by a canopy that is basically a shallow pool of water. Pretty much everything under the canopy, steps, stools, benches and columns are either lined with or made by cork. The water canopy stands 1.5 meters over ground level so that the visitor approaching can catch glimpses of both under and over it. The designers’ explanation on  how they came up with this idea is that they wanted to pay tribute to the preceding pavilions hence they excavated until they reached the previous foundations in a quasi-archaeological quest. Additionally every column that supports its roof is supposed to refer to each of the 11 pavilions that were built there and physically represent them within the current one.

Visiting the pavilion my first impression was that it created an inviting and comfortable environment. I bounced down the cork steps (a very interesting experience I admit) discovering a cavernous and rather mysterious interior. The visitors looked happily settled sitting or even laying down. Children were playing and exploring and there was a general feeling of curiosity and enjoyment in the air. All and all a specimen of successful architecture that people seem to enjoy. The edifice barely protrudes from the ground which has a very interesting effect on its environment as well. The water surface reflects the sky and the trees around it and frames the gallery which was hardly seen during summer months the past years, as the pavilion usually stood right in front of it. Anyhow this water disc that hovers over the grass is more than a mundane architectural element, it promises something, a hidden space underneath it.

Good architecture grasps the visitor just by its spatial power. It is supposed to be a tactile three-dimensional poetic act with a certain immediacy to it. Reading all the elaborate explanations of the designers on how they dug into the ground until they reached the park’s water bed looking for traces of the previous pavilions seem a little superfluous to me. I only recognise it as the usual over-conceptualisation-illness that contemporary art suffers from. Space is experienced and lived in, not explained. Explanations are only shallow waters while what is of interest is what they reflect or what hides underneath them.

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