Art galleries: the cathedrals of the modern age

Stunning new gallery spaces have opened in London and San Francisco. But which is better – the buildings or the art?

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From the Renaissance onwards, the building type that architects ­favoured as the ultimate showcase for their prowess was the church. It worked for Michelangelo and Borromini in 16th- and 17th-century Rome and for Wren and Hawksmoor in London after the Great Fire; churches were the ideal vehicle for both Pugin’s Victorian Gothic and Alvar Aalto’s 20th-century minimalism. But now, the building that architects most want to design is a modern place of worship – the art museum.

It was (with a nod to the Pompidou Centre) Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, inaugurated in 1997, that changed everything. Here was a building that was a work of art in its own right, which spurred urban growth and transformed the city in which it stood from a provincial backwater to a tourist destination. And this, even though the works on display were less striking than the building itself.

The Guggenheim and museums by other starchitects such as Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Norman Foster also did two other things: they helped the public to accept challenging building design and they cemented the interdependence of modern art and modern architecture. The critic Hal Foster has written about the latter phenomenon in The Art-Architecture Complex. The gallery, he says, has become the “primary site of image-making and space-shaping in our cultural economy”. And not always in a beneficial way: big buildings mean big capital, and the good and the bad that brings with it.

This year stands as striking proof of the omnipresence of the Art-Architecture Complex. A far-from-exhaustive list shows new galleries or extensions by big-name architects opened or opening in Basel (the Kunstmuseum, designed by Christ & Gantenbein), Mexico (the Museo Internacional del Barroco by Toyo Ito), Roskilde (the rock museum by MVRDV and COBE), Beijing (the Spring Art Museum by Praxis d’Architecture), Louisville, Kentucky (the Speed Art Museum by wHY), Rio de Janiero (the Museum of Image and Sound by Diller Scofidio + Renfro), Washington (the National Museum of African American History and Culture by David Adjaye) and London (the late Zaha Hadid’s maths gallery at the Science Museum). The biggest of them all is Herzog and de Meuron’s extension to Tate Modern, also in London.

At £260m, this last example is the most expensive arts project in the UK this century and is a direct response to the unforeseen success of the same practice’s £134m conversion of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside power station into Tate Modern in 2000. Designed to accommodate two million visitors a year, it now struggles under the footsteps of five million, making it the most popular modern and contemporary art gallery in the world. The 11 levels of the new extension give the Tate 60 per cent more display space as well as those now vital ele­ments of any new gallery: public spaces, learning facilities, a restaurant, offices and, admittedly less vital, a viewing terrace.

The Tate extension is first and foremost a tremendously exciting structure – something that not every marquee building manages. A flat-topped pyramid with origami folds, the Switch House (named after the part of the power station on which it now sits) is wrapped in a complicated, almost Moorish brick lattice that acts like a veil around the concrete structure within. Outside, it matches the brickwork of ­Gilbert Scott’s original power station, built between 1947 and 1963, and, inside, the perforations break up and filter the light that enters through a series of long slit windows. Different times of day give different effects.

The new building at Tate Modern

The Switch House can be entered from the south or through the original Tate Modern – the Boiler House, as it is now known. There is also a high-level bridge between the two, giving vertiginous views of the Turbine Hall below. Someone not interested in art can now walk from St Paul’s Cathedral, across the Millennium Bridge and through Tate, taking in the views from the 360-degree viewing terrace, eventually to emerge in south London, all without seeing a single work of art. Take in a picture or two, and it makes for one of the more interesting half-mile excursions around.

The Switch House palette is one of concrete and the same untreated oak floors and dark wood handrails of the Boiler House. A curved concrete staircase of massive ele­gance takes the viewer up from the Tanks – which once stored the oil that fuelled the power station and which, since 2012, have been the venue for Tate’s live art performances. As you rise, the staircase shows surprises on each floor, from a three-­storey void cut out behind the brick skin that makes you involuntarily crane your neck and look upwards to a coil in the staircase that hides seating. The bigger display spaces are on the lower storeys and the stairs narrow to give a sense of drama the higher one rises.

Gratifyingly, among the new building’s views are glimpses into the swanky apartments that resulted from the gentrification generated by Tate. If you want to see what a non-dom lifestyle looks like, you can now stare at the knick-knacks and designer furniture artfully arranged in these vitrines for living. I suspect there is about to be a rush on blinds in the area.

If the building is something to visit in its own right, what about the art inside it? The irony, given Tate’s runaway success, is that its permanent collection has always been rather underwhelming: it can’t hold a ­candle to that of, say, MoMA in New York. If you wanted to use it to tell the story of 20th-century art you would struggle. Yes, the collection contains Picassos, Matisses, Pollocks and Warhols but not many and not, in most cases, absolutely top-notch. Rothko’s Seagram murals are an exception. Given the tight purse strings of the purchasing budget, unless a major ­benefaction comes the gallery’s way, things are unlikely to change. Tate’s response, pragmatism recast as a mission statement, has been to go international and buy work from Africa, Asia, South America and female artists that has been excluded from the canon and which allows it to tell a fuller story of how contemporary art got the way it is.

In preparation for the opening of the Switch House, the gallery has been surreptitiously rehanging its existing galleries to reflect art’s trajectory since 1900, dedicating the new building to post-1960 art. The result is that almost everything in the entire Tate complex is freshly displayed and a whopping 75 per cent of the exhibits have been purchased since the gallery opened in 2000. It is less of a facelift than full-on ­reconstructive surgery.

The Switch House has the gallery’s biggest display spaces and, while visitors are likely to be disappointed if they are looking for familiar masterpieces, what they will find is the fascination and novelty of the unfamiliar. Whether the work of, say, Ana Lupas (Romania), Hélio Oiticica (Brazil) or Marwan Rechmaoui (Lebanon) offers the aesthetic kick of the familiar big names is arguable, but it does offer in concentrated form the full, bewildering gamut of contemporary art – from mystification, vacuity and pretentiousness to beauty, craft and the numinous.

It just happens that, halfway round the world, almost exactly a month ago, another major gallery opened an extension that, in some ways, shows the Tate in reverse. Since 1995 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has been housed in a nasty example of late postmodernism designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta. For the past three years, the museum has been closed while an extension has been constructed behind it, designed by the Norwegian practice Snøhetta, which dwarfs the original and gives SFMOMA three times its former exhibiting space.

Snøhetta’s extension to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The architects were presented with a unpropitious site: a plot deeper than it is wide, with tight frontage on a city street where the new building joins the old in an L-shape, and with a hotel occupying the other quadrant – a giant and unlovely cuckoo in the SFMOMA nest. The sightlines to the extension are restricted to the point where the only people who can see the new building are workers high up in the art-deco tower blocks behind the museum. The public can get only partial glimpses and slices. The exigencies of the site demand a large rectangle to maximise the space but the prevailing nostrums, inevitably, said otherwise: high art needs high architecture.

Snøhetta has come up with an undoubtedly very beautiful building. It literally turns its back on Botta’s building and distances itself from it in form, colour and size. Part ice wall, part cruise liner, the extension is covered with 700 lightweight reinforced polymer panels, each one unique, which give its curved side ripples, mimicking the waters and fogs of San Francisco Bay. There are terraces and a living plant wall and windows that slice into the façade and add a sense of movement. Close to, it offers external surprises and unexpected tight-cropped vistas. Nevertheless, it is a $305m (£210m) project that almost no one can see it in its entirety.

Inside, the back of the original SFMOMA has been knocked through so that visitors can walk seamlessly from one building to the other. Apart from a glass-fronted, street-level gallery housing Richard Serra’s huge, rusted-steel Sequence (a set-up that echoes his Snake at the Guggenheim Bilbao), the entrance foyer lacks oomph and grandeur. The detailing of the galleries, however, is immaculate, from recessed lighting in the stair treads and scalloped coving across the ceilings, which gives a softer and more even light, to sprung maple floorboards to ease tired feet. The staircases that climb up seven storeys at the edge of the building offer a perspective-scrambling enfilade, narrowing and funnelling, with views of gallery-goers ascending and descending on switchbacks; they look as though they have been designed by Piranesi in collaboration with M C Escher. As with Tate’s Switch House, there are white walls and pale wooden floors throughout.

With their new buildings, both Tate and SFMOMA had the opportunity to buck the turgid orthodoxy that a modern art gallery is obliged to have only pale wooden floors and white walls. Both blew it. Have they never seen contemporary paintings against coloured walls and the added resonance and impact they can have? The pallid palette that rules everywhere is operating-room sterile and negates what much of the art tries to do (though not all, because modern artists can be just as committed to the white cube as the gallerists). It would take a museum director of exceptional courage to play with colour and lighting and see what visual drama might emerge. At this point, it seems unlikely to happen.

What makes this timidity less irksome in SFMOMA’s case is the strength of its collection. While many of Europe’s museums were founded on royal collections and have subsequently received some form of state support, in the US they have largely been built on gifts from businessmen and rely on endowments. Collectors from the robber-baron generation of Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon onwards have had a history of arts philanthropy – albeit often with the desire of aggrandising their own name – and a large part of the raison d’être of the extension is the unprecedented, 100-year loan the museum has negotiated with the Fisher family, founder of the Gap clothing chain.

SFMOMA already has its own prized collection; the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection adds another 1,100 works by 185 artists, many of the pieces, by the likes of Anselm Kiefer, Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin and Alexander Calder, being of the very highest quality. The collaboration offers a museum within a museum (75 per cent of the art on show in the new spaces must be Fisher works) and makes the combined ­SFMOMA-Fisher holdings a treasure house of modern and contemporary art, the likes of which Tate can only dream about. In a parallel universe, SFMOMA’s art would be in Tate’s building.

Until the opening of Tate’s Switch House, SFMOMA was, for a month, supposedly the biggest museum of modern and contemporary art in the world. Yet such is the insatiable nature of the Art-Architecture Complex that these two impressive buildings are not the endpoint. Tate’s reign won’t last.

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink