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The new addition to Tate Modern is a building that attracted the attention of the general public before it was even built. After all since its opening in 2000, Tate Modern has been one of the most visited tourist sites in London. The reason for its success is a combination of factors. Its location, its status in the world of art and without a doubt its architecture as well. Herzog and de Meuron did, back then an undeniably good job with it.

New-tate-2_At a time when industrial relics and retrofuturism was just getting to be fashionable they renovated an existing building, previously a power station and turned it to the hugely famous Tate Modern. The brick bulk, the landmark chimney and the cathedral-like Turbine hall compel the visitor immediately. A composition which demonstrates the importance in the simplicity of straightforward architectural gestures. What could the architects come up with that would be equally strong?

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The obvious answer would be at least externally an equally bulky and strict building. So the quasi-pyramidal shape that we watched rise for a few years, was a rather logical decision for a form. It makes me think a bit of children’s blocks and their basic shapes, the rectangle, the pyramid the sphere.

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As a first impression though, the outside of the new building is not as interesting as the interior spaces that it encloses. I am not sure why; Is it maybe because the sequel is never as good as the original? The one good thing that I had to give to this building is that somehow it manages to hide its scale; it seems smaller than it is. When I got myself all the way up to the viewing terrace I realised how high it was because one sees the old Tate modern’s roof from above. This is still a sort of an optical illusion because in my memory the original building seems taller, when actually it is not.

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Entering the new building from its own entrance on Sumner St. the visitor goes past the restaurant to the left and then has a choice, either take a staircase going down towards The Tanks, the basement part of the building that was first opened a few years back, or go up towards the new galleries. The staircases are beautiful, the detailing is impeccable throughout the interior spaces and has a clean slick feel to it. Beautifully finished concrete with no visible paint and simple black metallic rails.

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The route of the visitor is really thought-out well. There are surprises all the way up, little sitting corners, seemingly randomly shaped windows and views as you wind yourself up. Circular stairs, straight stairs design details, inviting corners to sit or balconies one can look over to a foyer at a floor beneath.

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Also the way the two buildings are connected, at three levels with the turbine hall on level 0 and then two bridges, one on level 1 and another one on level 4 also enrich the experience and broaden the choices of how to move inside the galleries.

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Walking through this building though, interesting as it was, had a negative side to it too. Gallery spaces, which by nature are more introvert in order for the visitor to focus on the art on display were too generic and also felt slightly claustrophobic. The spaces that link them, foyers, staircases and such are much more interesting to walk through.

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These connecting spaces had a very weird quality to them as well, the strong voyeuristic character of their windows.

The last 17 years that Tate Modern has existed in this location and as its importance and status increased, so did the value of the land around it.

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New housing developments popped up which are mainly luxury apartments. Most of these buildings with their often wall-to-wall curtain windows wide open to the Tate, pose an interesting contradiction. A large display of design furniture and art visibly showing off their status, while at the same time signs everywhere inside the Tate ask us the visitors, to please respect the neighbours privacy.

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I thought those signs to be very ironic. It is the contradiction of our way of lives really, obsessed with selfies in an ongoing struggle to show off and attract attention. Only to claim retrospectively false modesty along with the request towards the spectator to look elsewhere. Capitalist exhibitionism in denial is what it felt I was observing. And strangely this stayed with me more than the crisply detailed new building.

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Tate Modern web site here

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I went to see the Endless Stairs that have been placed in front of Tate modern for London Design Festival rather negatively biased. It is rare that I am taken by a venture with such extreme exposure. Mostly because if something is that intensely advertised and placed in front of a building as iconic as the Tate, it is obvious that someone will eventually have an enormous profit from it. I understand that this statement might sound a little bit generic and harsh but I truly believe that commercial motives rub off a certain patina on artistic creations which is detectable if someone looks closely enough.

drawings on the right from American hardwood's website

drawings on the right from American hardwood’s website

Money makes the world go round and I do not think that companies such as American Hardwood Export Council that financed the “Endless stairs” include in their budgets art projects because they are interested in artistic experimentation. dRMM was the architectural practice that designed it and Arup did the engineering. The promenade in front of Tate modern was a very successful spot to place the stairs because it is one of the most touristic areas in London since the Tate is the most visited art gallery in the world. Naturally deals like this one are mutually beneficial for the companies that make them, especially for the smaller ones. However since big names are involved in this project all the more reason to raise the expectations.

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The first thing that I realised reaching the Endless Stairs was that there was an endless queue of people waiting to get on them. I patiently waited in order to have a well rounded opinion but in the end I wish I had not because they actually look much nicer from afar. To be fair, their construction is very sturdy and the detailing is crisp. The side-banister panels are interesting, especially the solid ones. I also liked the columns which support the structure because they are rather lean compared to the stairs that look somewhat heavier, hence they manage to create a subtle illusion of the stairs being suspended in the air. I appreciated all these gestures. Researching more information about them I also appreciated that they are prefabricated and have been designed as an experimental additive system. I believe that their name is a reference to the fact that they interlock in an infinite number of ways, rendering them in principle a quite flexible -and marketable- construction method.

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Which gets us to their association to Escher’s stairs that I found to be a rather cheeky promotional trick. These stairs have literally nothing to do with the ones they are supposed to be inspired from. Escher’s drawings of stairs truly bend reality and manage to confuse the viewer to the maximum. This construction is extremely logical and symmetrical and it leads somewhere: to a dead-end spot where one is supposed to admire the view from. Most of Escher’s stairs on the contrary are optical illusions and are connected in a loop. They are meticulously drawn, in order to look real when actually it would be almost impossible for them ever to exist. Thus a fantasy world is created in most of Escher’s drawings and the viewer has to spend some time looking at them trying to decipher how the illusion is structured.

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There is no doubt that most architects know and love Escher and ultimately it is an ambitious endeavour to aspire to create something that is supposed to resemble his work. Unfortunately though it seems more probable that the artist’s name was used to attract architects and architectural enthusiasts in order to promote the hardwood product because the connection to the original artwork is quite distant.

Some of Escher's truly endless stairs

Some of Escher’s truly endless stairs

Apart from my unfulfilled dream to disorientate myself Escher-style, the view from the top of the stairs was not worth waiting for either. To conclude and clarify my views I do not think that there is anything wrong with the “Endless stairs” apart from the fact that they are not endless enough. They are an interesting, nicely designed and nicely constructed installation. Like most contemporary architectural products though they come with a story that frankly is very loosely associated with what is finally built. I often find that it would be much better if that story were absent. Naturally then, there would be no excuse to built the stairs, which once again proves my point that they were created mainly for promotional reasons. A company wanted to be advertised thus it brainstormed to find a way and a platform to do so. And to loop my thoughts to the beginning of this article as a humble homage to Escher, the commercial reason behind the creation of artistic products sadly compromises their quality and ultimately their very reason of existence.

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London Design Festival’s website here

dRMM’s website here

American Hardwood’s website here

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

These two exhibitions have much in common. Their most important similarity is that both artists use architecture as a protagonist in their films while  the absence of human presence is also rather obvious in both. However the way in which they reach the viewer is fundamentally different.

Tacita Dean’s ‘Film’ combines shots of Tate Modern’s interior spaces  with images of symbolic nature. The only actual human appearance, is the artist’s eye that looks at the viewer through a circular hole towards the end of the film. Her use of traditional means of film-manipulation like masking and hand-colouring of the frames, create a rather spectacular visual effect in playback. In some shots there is also a reference to Mondrian’s paintings of primary coloured rectangles. In the short documentary screened on the 5th floor the artist speaks among other things, about the meaning of some of the symbolic images she chose to include in her work. For example, the shot of the mountain in clouds inside the turbine hall, refers to Mount Analogue from the novel of para-surrealist writer René Daumal.

3 stills from Tacita Dean’s ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

Additionally, the choice of a portrait format instead of landscape also refers to the human figure. Architecture is one of the main starting points for this piece however Dean’s agenda to promote analogue film instead of digital technology seems equally important to the visual context. (see more here)

Zarina Bhimji’s ‘Yellow Patch’ on the other hand uses architecture and the absence of human presence so that everything that is humane about buildings comes forth powerfully. The movement of the camera represents the artist behind it. We are undoubtedly following her footsteps and we are looking through her eyes. This is not a generic way of observing, it is a very personal one which reveals much about the creator. Abandonment and decay of buildings, interior spaces and furniture speak of mortality in a poetic way.

2 stills from Zarina Bhimji’s ‘Yellow Patch’ at the Whitechapel Gallery

The film itself becomes a memento mori, a piece of art that serves as a reminder of human mortality which despite its morbidity, people are drawn to it because they cannot help but to identify with it. Her use of soundtrack is quite dramatic as well and combined with the images evokes strong emotions to the viewer.

Coming to a conclusion on what is fundamentally different about the two works of art, one could say that Tacita Dean’s piece involves architecture in a metaphorical  way.  Her film is a puzzle to unravel and one can appreciate it for its visually poetic qualities but it is helpful to be given some clues in order to decipher its meaning.

3 stills from Tacita Dean’s ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

On the other hand Bhimji’s film has an immediacy to it. It seems that it reaches the visitor in a visceral way before  engaging  the intellect. All spaces shown, have been inhabited and it is very obvious that life has rubbed off on them. The creator’s lens traces the details almost with compassion.

Not to belittle Dean’s ability to appeal to the visceral or Bhimji’s urge to engage the cerebral, both works of art achieve to address the above with different intensity. Ultimately, it is up to the visitor to appreciate and relate to them. Depending on one’s preferences anyone could identify with one, rather than the other. Definitely they are both worth visiting and are highly recommended.

4 stills from Zarina Bhimji’s ‘Yellow Patch’ at Whitechapel Gallery


You might also want to check:

http://tacitadean.tate.org.uk/

http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/zarina-bhimji

http://www.zarinabhimji.com/

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