Changing City Landscapes: How a London Power Station Transformed into the Tate Modern
BY CLAIRE BULLEN
Over the decades, London’s Bankside Power Station has been many things to many people. Architectural landmark. Industrial cathedral. Eyesore. For the past 14 years, though, the sprawling structure—capped with its iconic, sky-scraping chimney—gained a new identity. Now home to the Tate Modern, this historic building has a new lease on life as the world’s most visited contemporary art museum.
From a turbine hall to a contemporary gallery, the Tate Modern building has always been a powerhouse. Photos courtesy of the Tate Modern.
Today, the Tate Modern is a treasured London landmark, and one of its three most-visited sites. Its monumental scale means that, even amidst London’s ever-increasing skyline, it’s hard to miss. Developed by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and built between 1947 and 1963, the structure has always had the city in its veins. Scott’s background—he’s also famous for having designed the Waterloo Bridge, as well as the classically British red telephone box—ensured its local pedigree.
But the Bankside Power Station wasn’t fated to have a long industrial life. Active for fewer than 30 years, it closed in 1981 after oil prices skyrocketed. The once-regal building lay dormant on the banks of the Thames, and decay rapidly set in. Calls to tear down and redevelop the structure soon grew to a clamor, and by 1993, it was on the brink of destruction; a hole had already been torn in one of its flanks to begin the process.
So what saved this London icon? The answer, simply, is art.
In 1994, Tate—already one of the UK’s biggest arts institutions—put out the call to establish a brand new museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art. The disused Bankside Power Station was soon selected as the appropriate venue, and applications from the world’s top firms poured in—starchitects the likes of Renzo Piano and Rem Koolhaas submitted proposals for the space. Finally, a submission by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, whose plans sought to change as little of the building as possible, won out.
The architects’ process always sought to honor the heritage of the building while making it newly accessible. Jacques Herzog commented, “It was conceived as a power station, which is a technical building—it’s a machine rather than a building. It was not meant to be public, it was not meant to be for people. It was unpublic. And we had to literally reverse that.” Herzog went on to explain,“We wanted the envelope of this industrial look outside to connect with whatever was inside. The new shouldn’t be alien to the old, and the old shouldn’t be alien to the new.”
At last unveiled in 2000, the Tate Modern, as it stands today, is a model of urban adaptive reuse: an incredible, cavernous space where history and modernity, function and aesthetics, seamlessly meld. The seven-story structure sees galleries occupying what was once the boiler house, and, if cathedral is the metaphor, then the ex-power station’s turbine hall is its nave. The soaring central space is an awe-inspiring entryway, and also occasional host to large-scale installations. One of the most popular, Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 piece The Weather Project, which installed a hazy “sun” within its walls, temporarily transformed the hall into a kind of mesmeric urban beach.
The River Thames used to provide cooling water for the power station, but now offers a stunning view for visitors of the Tate Modern.
The Tate Modern’s only problem? It’s just too popular.
Given that the museum welcomes close to five million visitors every year, it didn’t take long for Tate to realize that even the massive dimensions of the power station were not enough space. So where to go from here?
Enter the second phase of the Tate Modern Project, which will expand the one-time power station even further. In the basement, rooms that once held millions of gallons of oil have now been stripped bare; the resulting Tanks are devoted to performance art. A new, pyramidal tower will be built onto the museum’s southern side, which will double the gallery space. A viewing platform will crown the addition, and will offer some of the city’s most coveted views. Say the architects, “We wanted the combined elements of Tate Modern, old and new, to be expressed as a whole, to have them come together and function as a single organism.”
They’ll also reshape the very fabric of the neighborhood around the museum, creating new pathways, public spaces, and connections between the building and the area’s residents and visitors. It’s a dramatic plan that will usher in a new phase for the city: London will be more accessible, more cultured, and more beautiful than ever.
This is the second in our series: Changing City Landscapes. We’re chronicling the fascinating ways cities adapt spaces to fit tomorrow’s needs with building blocks from the past. Through urban adaptive reuse, visionary architects, developers, and city planners are turning blight into beauty.