Touring the new Tate

Inside the new Tate extension last August 2015
Inside the new Tate extension, London, last August 2015

Tasmanians know well the transformative powers of a museum.  This week, flocking to MONA’s Dark Mofo festival, they were feasting outdoors in bitter winds, preparing to swim naked, or practising a day of silence to mark the Winter Solstice.

Yesterday in London, after 8 years in construction, the Tate Modern extension had its official unveiling.The parent building opened 15 years ago in a former 1950s oil-fired power station on the south bank of the River Thames and is one of the UK’s top three tourist attractions with 5 million visitors a year.

Last year I was fortunate to have a private tour of the new extension with Martin, my twin, the project design director for Ramboll in the UK, responsible for the structural, facade geotechnical and civil engineering design. It’s been his passion for 8 years, from appointment to opening, including a pause and partial opening of the oil tanks for the London 2012 Olympics.

When I’m in Hobart I feel connected to my twin. Marty graduated from UTAS with a Bachelor of Engineering in the 1980s and one of his first jobs, with Philp Lighton Floyd Beattie engineers, was on the Port of Hobart control tower near Constitution Dock where I feel he’s watching over me. He left his mark on the North Hobart Oval stand, too, and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s Macquarie St entrance.

In London last summer, donning compulsory hard hat and steel-toed boots, I was able to trip through the inside of this amazing space from my brother the engineer’s perspective.

You have to understand the engineer’s perspective isn’t sexy. It often involves holes in the ground, particulars about building materials, and measurements that fail to translate into the kind of awe you know you should be feeling. Frequently the engineer’s discourse incurs grumbles about architects who seemingly get all of the glory while engineers have about as much profile as, well, a hole in the ground.

But I’ve learned to appreciate that what holds up a building is as important as what you see and how you live in it. So often the message is lost in translation, with attention gravitating towards the design instead, rather like moths to flames.

Last August, Marty told me how this building was structurally and geometrically unique: using a “bricks and sticks” system designed and developed by Ramboll, with not one single right angle. Practically every form of concrete is employed (insitu, precast, post tensioned, exposed, panelized, and three-dimensionally framed), and, on top of it all, spans London’s highest and newest steel pedestrian bridge. The perforated sloping masonry façade – like a piece of giant origami – contains vast cathedral-like spaces.

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What I truly appreciated about this building, even a year before completion, was how it made me feel. Despite being surrounded by busy builders in high-vis and hard hats, I wanted to dance right through its open levels laid with unstained oak timber flooring and waltz down spiraling staircases that put people first.

The £260m extension, called the Switch House, revolutionizes the idea of a public gallery.  The 11-storey high brick pyramid is built on top of oil storage tanks that once serviced the power station. Designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, it provides an additional 60% of gallery space dedicated to live art, film and installations – what Tate Modern’s Director Sir Nicholas Serota calls “a different kind of art because in 15 years art itself has changed”.

As MONA-goers know, art is being experienced and lived not simply observed or viewed. You get the sense that this will be the measure of this Century.

Aside from this week’s reviews, design critiques and fancy openings, I remind myself what this building does is put the common brick centre stage.

The hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World; the Great Wall of China, the largest man-made object on the planet; the Hagia Sophia, one of the most beautiful churches ever built; the structure of India’s Taj Mahal; the unforgettable profile of the Chrysler building in New York – all these have one thing in common – they were built out of brick, perhaps the most ubiquitous and yet least regarded of materials.

At the Switch House, 380,000 bricks were placed on the façade, matching those on the existing museum, but at the same time creating something radically new – a perforated brick lattice through which interior lights glow in the evening.  Yanchee Lau, the design associate and expert at computational design in 3D, spent the majority of his time on the brickwork. “We gasped at the ambition, barely able to grasp the level of attention that it would demand from us,” he said, “but we knew that it was going to be special.” Lau began the process of drawing every brick and anointed each one with a name.  Hand-laying each and every brick, he says, was central to assembling it.

Marty told me Derek Byrne, the man who laid the new gallery’s first brick in August 2014, laid the last one on Valentine’s Day this year before the ten-week process of disassembling the scaffolding. When I asked more about Derek, Marty emailed that he looked a very seasoned, well-worn brickie, probably in his late 50s, from Essex where his company is based. “He’s super proud of what he and his team accomplished. They’re now moving on to develop ideas for Roman Abramovich’s new football stadium for Chelsea – where 6 million bricks are required.”




Where else in the world?


Wilhelmina, Orlando & Denvor at Orford, with Maria Island in the background
Wilhelmina, Orlando & Denvor at Orford, with Maria Island in the background

In my 20s I lived and worked in Hobart and spent holidays in Orford, doing the sort of stuff we take for granted in Tasmania. Typically: sailing, boating, fishing, snorkeling and diving.

Back then I remember watching a young girl with long, sun-bleached hair ride a horse bare back down the road to Millingtons’ Beach; two boys kept up on foot behind. Although not knowing who she was, I’ve carried her image with me throughout my life – a tantalizing reminder of the lifestyle I’d left behind to follow jobs in big cities. To me, that young girl oozed natural spirit and outdoor freedom – a symbol of a special Tassie way of life.

I’m telling you this because last week I happened to meet that girl – a young mum called Wilhelmina Rea. Now 32, with two boys Orlando, 4, and Denvor, 3, she still holidays in Orford, at Porthcawl, the home barged over from Maria Island during the Depression by her great grandfather Len Nettlefold.

Rea is one of a growing number of residents who’ve joined Marine Protection Tasmania Inc. They’re so alarmed about Tassal’s plans to develop a 28-pen fish farm in Okehampton Bay, Triabunna opposite the World Heritage Maria Island National Park, in April they started a campaign: “No Fish Farms In Tasmania’s East Coast Waters”. Vice President Grant Gaffney, who’s been diving on the east coast for 30 years, confirms 490 local and 1500 online signatories.

Locals walking their dogs on the front beach stop to swap the latest with Rea. They tell me they feel the concerns of families who’ve holidayed there for generations have largely been ignored. Information days, they say, do not equate to securing a social license. They’re worried the Marine Farm Planning Act was written in 1995, and want to see a new marine approval process for the fish farm instigated because the lease for fin fishing in Okehampton Bay was granted nearly two decades ago, to Spring Bay Seafoods. A lot has changed since then, they say, not least rising sea temperatures, toxic algal blooms, severe depletion of fish and abnormal coastal erosion.

Tassal, Australia’s largest salmon producer, stresses it has undertaken engagement in the area. “We may not have everyone on the same page,” says CEO Mark Ryan, “but we’re doing it within the rules and being accountable”. “For us to have a social license doesn’t mean we have to please every single individual.” Marine Protection Tasmania remains far from convinced – with some 2000 voices Tassal has failed to convert – and are focused on the next stage of their campaign.

I used to sail in a trailer sailer across to Maria from Orford, so I know what Rea means when she says she’s grown up swimming with dolphins in Chinaman’s Bay, fishing for crayfish in a bikini in knee-high deep water, floundering at night, and counting shooting stars through the boat cabin window. She shows me a photo of her, aged 2, in nappy and lifejacket, fishing with her father who’s holding up the biggest flathead you’re ever likely to see.

Wilhelmina fishing with her late father, Robbie

“I’ve always dreamt of doing that with my own children,” says Rea. “I want them to have the same experiences and opportunity on the East Coast as I have.” She says Orlando was in a boat when he was 3 weeks old, and Denvor even earlier than that. “I’m nurturing the same thing.” But with the onset of East Coast fish farms Rea believes much of that is at stake.

Orlando runs up to greet us on the beach with a fist-sized crab shell he’d just found. “Never in my wildest dreams would I think all this would be taken away from me,” observes Rea. She and her mother, Willie, are preparing for the kind of battle they never thought they’d have to fight. Already, Orlando talks of fish farms collectively as “poo poo fish farms”.

Sharing crab shells
Orlando sharing crab shells

It’s not just her boys Rea cares about, but generations of other family histories she hopes to protect. Next to the old Aga in the Porthcawl kitchen hang two framed photos: her mother in the arms of Wilhelmina’s late father Robbie, on their honeymoon on Prosser Bay. Rea says her parents had packed up their Sydney lives in the back of a Holden after “cracking it in a traffic jam”. They even dug up the lemon tree and stuffed it in the boot of the car before driving to Tassie. That lemon tree survives and has broad branches now.

Willie and Robbie on honeymoon on Prosser Bay
Willie and Robbie on honeymoon on Prosser Bay

As children, Rea and her three brothers, fifth generation Nettlefolds, spent every weekend and entire school holidays going up the coast to Porthcawl, sailing to Maria Island in “The Rose”, four kids squeezed in with windsurfers, boogie boards, surfboards, diving gear, fishing, and “epic amounts of food”.

She says every day her mother worries about where else they will go if fish farms eventuate and the waters where they’ve played are changed for good. “Do we have to think about moving to Flinders Island?” she ponders.

Mother & daughter
Mother & daughter

Rea says she’s not against fish farms, just not in these waters. She knows there are more sustainable ways of farming fish and wonders why farming has to take place in the bay where locals have always played and fished.

Willie minds the two boys as Rea sifts through folders of facts, papers, and letters. Orlando wants his mum’s attention but she’s preoccupied, pointing out that Tassal’s proposed timeline of works for Okehampton Bay (detailed on their website) is starting shore base construction this year and installation of marine infrastructure in 2017.

“It’s not just me, but so many families share a proud connection to the culture of this coast,” says Rea. “I teach my boys how to catch crayfish from the paddleboard. Where else in the world can you get that? Where else can you light a fire on the beach and have lunch together eating fresh crayfish? If we have fish farms in our East Coast waters, chances are we won’t have that anymore.”

“Where else in the world?” matters. It brings us home to ourselves. Our island connections to land and sea matter, as much as our need to exploit them. Any doubts about that cause sleepless nights for those with caring hearts.

Stapletons Beach overlooks Maria Island
Sheer beauty: Stapletons Beach overlooking Maria Island

Tassal is holding an Information Display of the Okehampton lease and shore base operations at the Triabunna community hall next Saturday, June 18, 10 am – 2pm.

First published in TasWeekend, June 11 2016

That’s me, sailing on Prosser Bay