Designing the Tate Modern - What to Do With an Old Power Plant

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Reinventing a Power Plant at the Tate Modern

The Tate Modern in London
The Tate Modern in London. Photo by Eric Nathan / Britain On View / Getty Images

The scene along London's South Bank was grim in the 1980s. Looming over the Thames River, the oil-fired Bankside Power Plant was a gargantuan expanse of ugly brown bricks and abandoned space. Designed in 1947 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the plant shut down in 1981. That space was transformed when Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, winners of the 2001 Pritzker Prize, created the new Gallery of Modern Art for the Tate Museum.

A number of architects submitted proposals for the new museum, but they planned to demolish much of the power house. Among the six finalists, Herzog & de Meuron was the only firm that suggested reusing a significant portion of the plant. The adaptive reuse reinvention opened to the public in 2000.

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Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern

The Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern - Workers rake 100 million handmade porcelain replica sunflower seeds of Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei's Installation
The Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern - Workers rake 100 million handmade porcelain replica sunflower seeds of Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei's Installation. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images News Collection / Getty Images

Left intact, the 500 foot Turbine Hall became a dramatic entrance for the Tate Modern museum. The industrial flavor of the building is reflected in the taupe walls and black steel girders. A new glass ceiling floods the austere space with natural light, creating an ideal environment for viewing art.

"It's a space you never could ever have achieved with a new building," says Rowan Moore. "For one thing they'd never get the money for it, but even if they did it would seem like a bombastic gesture because there's all this empty space here."

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Aikido Architecture at the Tate Modern

Galleries at the Tate Modern in London
Galleries at the Tate Modern in London. Photo (cc) Flickr Members Steve & Jemma Copley

"Our strategy was to accept the physical power of Bankside's massive mountain-like brick building and to even enhance it rather than breaking it or trying to diminish it," Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron said in their project description. "This is a kind of Aikido strategy where you use your enemy's energy for your own purposes. Instead of fighting it, you take all the energy and shape it in unexpected and new ways."

The energy of the Tate Modern sweeps over visitors the moment they walk down the ramp past the brightly-lit bookstore and ride the escalators past translucent green glass panels. Each half-floor contains up to 16 galleries with stark white walls and concrete or unfinished wood floors. The fifth floor rises two stories to a café, shop and auditorium. A lightweight luminous roof, fabricated from translucent panels, floods the galleries with light and offers breathtaking views of London.

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Adaptive Reuse at the Tate Modern

Near Millennium Bridge and a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, the Bankside Power Station is part of the transformation of an industrial part of London
Near Millennium Bridge and a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, the Bankside Power Station is part of the transformation of an industrial part of London. Photo by English Heritage, Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (cropped)

The Tate Modern is one of the world's most famous examples of adaptive reuse. Standing at the cornerstone of historic preservation, urban renewal and sustainable development, adaptive reuse is the process of finding new life for old buildings. It makes sense to reinvent rather than demolish, but attempts to work with structures built decades ago can be like opening a hornet's nest.

Building from the shell of an older structure can be more costly than demolishing and building from scratch. There may be structural problems which must be repaired. The interior walls of many older buildings cannot be easily moved because they may be essential for the structural support. What's more, the remodeled building must meet the most current fire and safety codes. Provisions must be made for handicap accessibility.

A whopping 20 percent of the overall construction budget may be consumed by the cost of removing toxic materials such as asbestos and lead-based paint. To make matters worse, an old industrial structure simply may not provide a suitable environment for non-industrial uses such as museums, theaters, shopping enters or schools.

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Grand Spaces at the Tate Modern

Inside the Tate Modern's large, industrial spaces
Inside the Tate Modern's large, industrial spaces. Photo by Oliver Strewe / Moment Mobile / Getty Images (cropped)

Critics of the Tate Modern claim that the design of the new museum is counter-productive: instead of celebrating art, it overshadows the collections it contains. However, the artists who have exhibited there praise the cathedral-like space.

"You cannot always start from scratch," Herzog and de Meuron said in their project description. "We think this is the challenge of the Tate Modern as a hybrid of tradition, Art Deco and super modernism: it is a contemporary building, a building for everybody, a building of the 21st century."

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Transforming Tate Modern

The Tate Modern Switch House, 2016, designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron
The Tate Modern Switch House, 2016, designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron. Photo by Jack Taylor / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The Tate Modern museum has become a great tourist attraction since opening in May 2000. Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were enlisted to develop a design plan to expand and further transform the old power station. The massive, brick project, called the Switch House, opened in 2016.

About the Expansion:

  • A new North/South route leads from the Millennium Bridge through the building to Southwark
  • A new façade of perforated brick lattice complements the original structure, allowing light to glow through
  • Relocated transformers, natural ventilation, and passive design yeild greatly improved energy efficiency
  • Enormous oil tank chambers serve as a foundation for the new expansion and also provide performance space

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New Uses for Old Oil Tank Chambers at the Tate Modern

The Tanks used to store oil for the power plant but now provide large exhibit spaces and the foundation for the Switch House
The Tanks used to store oil for the power plant but now provide large exhibit spaces and the foundation for the Switch House. Photo by Ming Yeung / Getty Images News / Getty Images (cropped)

Behind the Tate Modern are two large, round concrete chambers that once housed the oil that ran the power station's turbines. The "oil tanks" have not been used since the power station was decommissioned. The new design plan by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron has turned the chambers into performance spaces and an auditorium.

No longer generating electricity, the Tanks generate ideas, creative energy and new possibilities for artists and audiences."—Tate.org [accessed August 14, 2016]