There’s a new kid on the block in London – the Tate Modern’s stylish Switch House. With its striking pyramid, stylish galleries and stunning panoramic views across London, this is a must-see attraction for many tourists this summer.
Rising up from the rear of the old Tate’s Turbine Hall, it’s the most important new cultural building to open in London since the British Library. And boy does it pack one big artistic punch.
No surprises then that I was one of the first in the queue at the Tate to discover what all the fuss is about.
Tate Modern’s Big Brother
The biggest shock is that Switch House has increased the size of the Tate Modern by more than double… so I found myself a little lost, although happy to discover its new spaces and galleries.
Like the Egyptian Pyramids and the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Switch House rises out of the ground like a modern wonder of the world.
Designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, who spearhead the conversion of the Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern in 2000, it’s a big statement building.
At a cost of £260 million, I guess that you’d expect nothing less.
The 10 storey tower looks like an ancient ziggurat from a distance with its multi-directional edges and tilting pyramid. It blends surprisingly well with the old Tate Modern, a smaller building, nudging up alongside it like its younger, but bigger, brother.
A bridge has been built across to the main Tate’s Turbine Hall to link the buildings which merge into one giant artistic treasure-house where you can get lost for hours.
At the heart of this huge cultural complex is ‘the visitor’. The Tate has made a huge effort to broaden the artistic experience and provide us with something a little different from the main building.
Expect live dancers, musicians playing odd musical instruments, and immersive video installations which make a visit to Tate Modern less of a passive experience.
Start your visit deep in the basement where subterranean galleries called The Tanks are dedicated to live art. The space was formerly occupied by the power station’s oil tanks, hence the strange name.
I’m told that there have been some great shows here since the gallery’s opening in June. Unfortunately, during my visit there wasn’t a big live art event going on so I’d recommend checking the events programme carefully before your visit.
But I was impressed by the powerful multi-screen video installation by the award-winning Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Primitive 2009 comprises nine videos in which the history of a border town in Thailand is re-imagined as a science fiction ghost story. It’s an impressive immersive experience where you can lie around on a giant red carpet watching the action unfold.
Digital technologies are more fully integrated into the experience of Tate Modern than before with new interactive spaces and activities.
As I wandered around the video installations, I started losing track of time and place. I guess that’s the intention of immersive art, but I was left short of time and had to race around the main galleries before they shut!
Then it was onwards and upwards, literally, to the 4th and 5th floor galleries. The Switch House’s main galleries have a much more international flavour than the older Tate Modern with artists from Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa.
Stand-out pieces include a giant tower of 800 radios by Cildo Meireles from Brazil, a room full of human hair and car bumpers by Sheela Gowda from India, and a tapestry made out of thousands of bottle tops by Ghanian artist, El Anatsui.
The large central gallery on the 4th floor is a lovely space to walk around and focuses on artists’ different approaches to making objects over the last few decades. It’s fun and engaging even if the quality of the art is somewhat uneven.
The highlight is Cristina Iglesias’s Pavilion Suspended in a Room where visitors walk into the enclosed, hanging labyrinth.
This is art which has been brought down from the pedestal and placed on the floor, creating a different relationship between the viewer, the art and the space around it. Walking around the works is a real joy in these gallery spaces – and you’re even allowed to take photos and selfies.
This mirrored cube (see below) provides some cute visual trickery which proved very popular with my fellow visitors.
Trying to make sense of our world is another theme in these galleries – and it’s illustrated brilliantly by this mirrored installation.
It’s fun to observe the multiple, reflected images through the holes in the art work. Selfie lovers will be happy to snap away as the images change as different people get immersed in the cube.
It’s a bit like immersing yourself in a geometrical fun palace with a wall of crazy mirrors. It may be a bit of a gimmick but it does succeed in engaging everyone who interacts with this work.
But weirder works are to come. The adjoining room features an interactive exhibit by Ricardo Basbaum whose multi-part installation includes a number of bed-capsules that visitors are invited to occupy where they can listen to a soundtrack.
They’re supposed to break down social barriers, but they seem to attract people who are already visiting the gallery together. I guess that getting into bed with someone you don’t know is a bit daunting for most of us!
No surprises that these are really popular so I wasn’t able to grab a bed space which was a great pity because my poor feet were suffering from gallery fatigue by now.
I’m not sure what the purpose of this art work is but it’s a brilliant idea to have capsule beds in a gallery. Trouble is that once inside them, the lucky few are very keen to hold onto them for an afternoon snooze!
Elsewhere, there are many weird and wonderful pieces as well as some controversial works including Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica’s ‘Tropicália’. This large environmental work is made up of huts along with plants, sand, wild birds, poems, and a TV set.
You are meant to be able to walk around its labyrinthine paths , but it was roped off on my visit. More worrying was the sign that said that the live macaws had been removed due to “crowds”.
I’m not a huge fan of animals in art works unless there is a really important world-changing message in the exhibit. Part of me hoped that the birds had escaped onto the Tate roof!
But the Switch Hall galleries aren’t just about gimmicks and immersive or interactive art. There are plenty of big-name modern artists from the international art world from early pioneers to later luminaries like Louise Bourgeois.
One of the great achievements of the Switch House is its focus on female artists, overlooked by far too long by many major galleries.
The Louise Bourgeois gallery is one of the highlights of the new Tate Modern with many of her most fascinating installations including her trademark spiders.
But it’s some of the lesser known exhibits that intrigued me, notably a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ section dedicated to Bourgeois’ small sculptures and maquettes. I love the way in which her art cuts across Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, whilst remaining distinctively different.
At the centre of the main gallery is one of Bourgeois’ most provocative works – ‘Cell (Eyes and Mirrors)’ constructed from a mixture of salvaged old doors, windows and wire mesh combined with found objects and sculptural fragments.
A large pair of black marble eyes stare out from a chunk of dark grey stone mounted on two sections of steel girder.
It’s a disturbing piece, designed to convey different types of pain – physical, emotional and psychological – and raises a whole series of questions which we’re forced to address as we stroll casually around the art work.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the black spider which suddenly appears above you as you leave the Bourgeois exhibition. It’s an ominous portent. It certainly made me leap out of my skin – a Hitchcockian moment!
The spider is a recurring motif in Bourgeois’s work, perhaps forcing us to address our inner fears. I raced out of this space before I could confront my own demons!
Elsewhere there are fine works by other female artists which are showcased beautifully. I loved the gallery displaying the striking black and white photographs of Byker by Sirrka Liisa Konttinin.
These are a world away from Louise Bourgeois’ installations, but make a powerful impact with their portrayal of the gritty reality of a working class community in Newcastle during the 1970s.
The architecture is as much the star of the show as the contemporary art in the Switch House. I was impressed by the galleries and public spaces which are full of light and feel spacious. The whole atmosphere is relaxed and doesn’t feel stuffy or elitist.
Moving around the public spaces, there is much to admire although the stark concrete brutalist style may not be to everyone’s taste. It does have a slightly disturbing Orwellian feel.
There is an overwhelming greyness to the design which you’ll love or hate. But the variation of the concrete textures, some harsh, others sleek, works for me.
The most dramatic spaces are those in the underground galleries where a coiling staircase takes you to the galleries above as if you’re approaching a ceremonial temple of art.
I enjoyed walking around the hallways, corridors and staircases because there are always architectural features to admire, from the window niches to the patterned, lattice designs of the windows.
On the downside, there have been a few teething problems, although hopefully these will be sorted out as the building grows into its skin.
The lifts look splendid but the queues mean a long wait, especially as visitors haven’t got the hang of the new building yet. It’s slightly confusing that one bank of lifts only goes up to the 4th floor, something I’d not appreciated till I got inside and the doors closed behind me!
There are no escalators in the Switch House, unlike the main Tate Modern, because the new building tapers and narrows as it grows taller and reaches to the skies.
Then there are the leaking windows, a worrying sight. At first I thought the buckets under the windows were a strange art installation, but as I approached them, it was plain to see that the gleaming, new building is letting in water, literally by the bucket load.
Perhaps this was down to the excessively bad weather on the day I visited when the heavens opened and poured down with monsoon-like rain. Let’s hope this problem can be fixed.
Overall, I’m a fan of the new building and there’s much to love including some fantastic design features and minimalistic styling.
However, it would be helpful to see more gallery plans in prominent places to guide you around its maze-like spaces which can be disorientating at times.
A gallery with a view
Those in search of the ‘wow’ factor’ are in for a treat up on the Switch House roof. Take the lift up to 10th floor roof where the open viewing terrace provides magnificent views of the London skyline.
The 360 degree walk around the roof terrace is a dizzying experience and provides some of the best ever panoramas of the city.
For some visitors this is the pinnacle of their visit. It reminded me of the notorious Saatchi marketing campaign for London’s V & A in the 1980s which described it as “an ace cafe with quite a nice museum attached”. Similarly, the Switch House could be described as “a great view with a decent gallery inside”.
It’s hard not to be blown away by the panorama. There are fabulous vistas as you look out towards St Paul’s and cast your eyes down the River Thames. You can see as far as Canary Wharf and Wembley Stadium – it’s fun to play ‘spot the building’.
Forget the Shard, this is THE best view in London and, better still, it’s free.
Although busy during my visit, it wasn’t difficult to jostle for good viewing spots, but I’m told that there have been some queues during busy times.
Even on the dull, rainy, grey day when I visited, this felt like something really special and, for me, ‘the wow’ factor was totally unexpected.
This is a brilliant way of looking at London’s changing skyline. It’s fascinating to see how London is getting taller as an explosion of skyscrapers grows upwards across the capital.
It’s a skyline where skyscrapers have evocative names like ‘The Cheesegrater’, ‘The Gherkin’. ‘The Quill’ and ‘The Blades’. The Shard is perhaps the most striking of London’s tall buildings at an impressive 800 feet high.
On the other side of the Switch House, you can gaze at these growing giants close-up and personal. I must admit that if I’d paid £3 million for a penthouse apartment with ceiling to floor glass windows, I’d be hacked off that tourists at the Tate are staring into my living room.
There are signs saying “respect the privacy of residents” although it’s hard not to look when these dream homes are so close to the Switch House. But I guess that it’s the cost of high-rise living – and being a millionaire!
The experience feels like being inside an art work, the viewer and the viewed, a very post modern view of the world.
Long live the Tate
It’s 16 years since the Tate Modern opened its doors for the first time. It’s become a huge hit with visitors so the new Switch House extension was perhaps inevitable.
Over £200 million later, the Tate Modern has done a brilliant job of expanding into its new hi-tech pyramid and creating an immersive building.
My only criticism is that art collection in the new galleries is good but not uniformly great, as it is in the main Tate Modern. This is perhaps because most of the works are largely conceptual and are not instant crowd pleasers by modern masters like Monet, Rothko or Pollock.
Perhaps it’s churlish to suggest that they lack a certain ‘wow’ factor because there is much to admire at the new Tate. But the star turn is definitely the building which marries together raw industrial spaces and striking contemporary architecture.
I’ve only been back a few days but already I need another trip to what is undoubtedly the British art gallery of the year. The Tate has evolved into a great 21st Century powerhouse of art. It’s just a pity about the water buckets and leaks!
Tammy Tour Guide – Tate Modern
The Tate Modern is located on London’s Southbank next to the River Thames and is open daily from 10:00-18:00 with late opening on Fridays and Saturdays. Entrance to the Tate Modern and Switch House galleries is free except for special exhibitions.
The nearest Tube and train station is Southwark a short walk from the Tate Modern. The RVI bus from Covent Garden will drop you nearby too.
Alternatively, why not take to the water on the Tate to Tate boat which runs from Millbank to Bankside every 40 minutes? It’s a fun way to see the Tate from the river.
Don’t forget your camera. Photography is allowed in the contemporary art galleries so it’s easy to get snap happy, but the lighting is tricky without flash in some of the public spaces.
It’s very difficult to take a top quality photograph of the Switch House exterior because of its large-scale and shape. I didn’t get the ‘money shot’ but the photo above shows shots are best taken from a distance, from the far side of the Thames or Blackfriars Bridge.
For those who get immersed inside the galleries for several hours, there is a cafe and restaurant to ease those hunger and thirst pangs. Enjoy your trip!