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.”




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