I recently found myself staring into a stranger’s living room, waiting for something beautiful to happen.
I was standing on the 10th-floor viewing terrace of the Tate Modern’s new wing, a twisting ziggurat of perforated brick and mortar that rises above the museum’s home in the old Bankside Power Station. The terrace allows for 360-degree views of the building frenzy that has consumed much of London’s skyline. Cranes dip and dive in every direction; to the east, the Shard, an overwhelming ice pick of a skyscraper, dwarfs the Victorian roofs of the surrounding neighborhood; to the west, the pregnant monolith of One Blackfriars, a 50-story mixed-used building, looms over the Thames like an alien mother ship. As is the case all over the city, many of its 4-million-pound apartments will be scooped up as investments, only to stand empty. Idle butlers will be forced to play solitaire ad infinitum. The future is a lonely place.
Directly across the street, at eye level, was NEO Bankside, three luxury condo towers, their facades crisscrossed in a metric of steel braces. In the nearest tower, no more than 200 feet from where we were standing, rose a series of angular glass living rooms, each meticulously furnished, each empty. In one, three white chairs stood in silent conference. In another, a telescope pointed reproachfully back at us. The only sign of life was a pair of slippers next to an uncomfortable-looking lime-green chaise longue.
I and my fellow observers were faced with a dilemma. A notice on the viewing terrace asked us to “Please respect our neighbours’ privacy,” yet for the rest of our museum experience we had been encouraged to look, to question, to interact. The takeaway from the Tate Modern’s new wing, which includes stunning subterranean spaces devoted to performance art, can be summed up as this: Art is not an object but an experience. A museum in the 21st century is no longer just a repository of work, but an active house of co-creation. The entire fifth floor of the new building is devoted to Tate Exchange, a flexible space for artists and the public “to collaborate, test ideas and discover new perspectives on life.”
Was the view of abandoned luxury also part of the museum? Did my strange mixture of emotions — the simultaneous curiosity and self-reproach of the voyeur — have a number on the audio tour? Guiltily, I leaned out over the terrace, staring at those slippers. I waited for some kind of performance to begin. I wanted to witness a murder, an affair, a revelation.
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This visual standoff offered a perfect distillation of the current battle for London’s soul. As more of these luxury towers spring up across the city, transforming neighborhoods into affluent ghost towns, Londoners are facing difficult questions: What kind of city do we want to live in? What do we want our streets to look like? What kind of public spaces are valuable to us? Part of the answer to these questions may lie in the entangled story of the Tate Modern and the Bankside neighborhood it helped spawn.
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The museum may be the among the best-known examples of the now fashionable transformation of derelict factories into dynamic cultural space. Since its inception, the Tate Modern has never rested on its laurels, continuing to redefine itself as an institution of outreach, self-reflection and learning. The museum’s evolution over time provides a potential blueprint for how London, and indeed any city, can provide spaces that encourage its inhabitants to be collectively present. You cannot experience the Tate Modern through Facebook or a tweet; you must show up, with an open mind, surrounded by your fellow visitors.
London is perhaps the most international city in the world, but at its heart it has always been a local city, a series of low-slung villages. The expanded Tate Modern embraces this human scale even if its aspirations are more global than ever.
Given the real estate mania that has engulfed Bankside and the surrounding Borough of Southwark, it’s easy to forget what a bold decision it was to shift the center of London’s contemporary art world 17 years ago to a hulking abandoned power station south of the river. Ask any Londoner about wandering amid the postindustrial squalor of Southwark in the late 1980s and you will be regaled by stories of taking life into your own hands.
Everything changed in 2000, when the Tate Modern, the London Eye and the endearingly wobbly Millennium Footbridge all opened to wild, instantaneous acclaim. The Tate Modern received 5.25 million visitors in its introductory year alone. For the first time in years, people crossed the Thames and lingered. And lingered. Urban redevelopment is never a simple formula, but this triumvirate — a wheel, a bridge, a museum — proved an irresistible alchemy that led directly to the area’s renaissance over the next decade and a half.
If the contemporary city dweller — faced with skyrocketing property values and the scrubbed corporatization of High Street — spends much time feeling nostalgic for that grittier, more authentic time of low rents and urban blight, then Southwark offers a particularly long and glorious history to savor. Because of its location outside the city gates, Southwark functioned as a refuge for weary travelers of all persuasions. Theaters and playhouses flourished, most famously Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, as did brothels, bearbaiting pits and breweries. Charles Dickens’s father was jailed for unpaid debts in Marshalsea Prison, one of many notorious lockups in the area. Dickens himself lived for a time on Lant Street, and the sordidness of Southwark provided a rich backdrop for his novels “Little Dorrit” and “David Copperfield.”
During the Industrial Revolution, Southwark became a nucleus of manufacturing because of its ample water, cheap land and cheap labor. Textile plants, breweries, a gasworks and coal and timber yards all led to astonishing levels of pollution. The Bankside Power Station, a giant brick sarcophagus bisected by an ominous chimney-spire, was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and began operations in 1952. The power station, across the Thames from St. Paul’s Cathedral like a shadow basilica of industrial consumption, chugged away, converting the oil in its great underground tanks into London’s electricity until 1981.
Perhaps even more unusual than the Tate Modern’s choice of an abandoned power station for a home was its approach to the building itself. In an architectural competition filled with overwrought interventions, Herzog & de Meuron’s winning design was most notable for its restraint: The plan left Scott’s brick shell largely untouched and drew out its industrial features rather than mask them. The architects have said that the smartest move of their careers was to make the great void of Turbine Hall, the former engine house, even bigger by dropping its floor to the basement level and allowing the visitor to enter down a long ramp.
My first encounter with Turbine Hall came in 2002, when I was living in London for the year, suffering from that very specific condition that often afflicts Americans if they spend any extended length of time in Britain, whereby everything feels both too familiar and too foreign. I remember the feeling of opening the door to the museum and drifting down that slope, confronted with the yawning mouth of a 10-story-high, red-rubber-Venus-fly-trap-cum-Victrola-horn. This maroon colossus, by the sculptor Anish Kapoor, dwarfed visitors and yet also managed to bring us together in mutual and gleeful bewilderment.