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Lifting the Lid of the Tate Modern’s Switch House

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London Calling has the lowdown on the most important British cultural building in more than twenty years.

The Tate Modern’s new building is billed as the most important cultural building to open in Britain for twenty years. Everyone from London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan to MP Ed Vaizey spoke at the grand opening. So what makes the new Switch House more than just another gallery space? London Calling has the lowdown.

There’s one thing that all art has in common: a frame. Whether it’s wood, metal, or purely conceptual, there is always a border where the artwork ends and the world begins. It’s the same with art exhibitions. Each is framed by the room, the building, and the landscape around it. Art enters into an unavoidable dialogue with its surroundings.

The Tate Modern is the world’s most popular museum of modern art. Formerly Bankside Power Station, its sombre brickwork, squat structure and thrusting tower are a brutal statement of power and confident aesthetics. The building has become as iconic as its forward-thinking collections. But barely fifteen years after opening, it needed an extension. Five million visitors now visit the building every year, more than double the amount Tate were expecting when they launched in 2000. Their solution? The Switch House.
Five years in the making, Switch House is an impressive and sensitive addition to the Tate’s original Boiler House and Turbine Hall. A stark wedge viewed from the north, a twisting pyramid from the south, its lines are dramatic against the clear sky. The power station’s bricks are replicated in colour but not in pattern, here arrayed in an elegant lattice, a brick veil that allows light to filter in and out of the building.

The extension was also needed as a solution for the Tate’s problem of space. Over the last decades their art collection has grown immensely, particularly taking in works from international artists. The four new floors of exhibition space increase the museum’s size by 60%. Its interiors are set in earth tones, soft wood and glass complementing the bare brick and concrete of the building’s skeleton. It may boast a unified aesthetic but the Switch House gives Tate a range of new possibilities, from new learning spaces and a restaurant to the stunning 360°panorama from the tenth floor.
 
Tate Modern once made waves for its landmark approach to presenting art, arranging its collections by theme and concept rather than artist, country or chronology. They’ve reshuffled the permanent collections to offer multiple ways for visitors to approach modern art, while the Switch House offers three new spaces for permanent collections. These have a deliberately broad focus allowing a wide range of displays, from sculpture and urban art to works where artists interact with the wider community.

Most impressive of the new spaces is the restructured basement of the Tanks, which once held the power station’s oil. These cavernous vaults are the world’s first art space dedicated to live art, installation and film, with Tate promising a range of new commissions to fill the blank spaces with sight and sound. A further addition is the new Artist’s Room, which will focus on a shifting cast of artists, one at a time. The room fittingly opens with work by Louise Bourgeois, who was the first artist that Tate commissioned to create work for the Turbine Hall.

The new space also allows Tate to take advantage of new technology, making art more accessible to the generation whose news comes from social media rather than the papers. A new Tate app guides you around the gallery via a series of iBeacons, giving history and context of the building and artists. A new 6.5 metre touchscreen offers an interactive timeline of modern arts. Intriguingly, two new ‘Explore’ spaces are planned which respond to the room’s number of visitors and their positions with floor-to-ceiling projections of live art and artists’ studios.

The marriage of architecture, aesthetics and technology mean the Switch House is more than a statement piece – it comes with substance and plenty of positive projects for the wider community. But of course, a gallery is only as strong as its art, and upcoming major exhibitions on the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, David Hockney and Cuban Surrealist Wifredo Lam are sure to see Tate Modern continue to go from strength to strength.
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