London's `Cathedral of Cool' shows strength of old in new

Former power plant glows across art world with modern works

May 07, 2000|By Bill Glauber | By Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON --This is where old industry collides with new art, where machinery gives way to Monet and power yields to Picasso.

This is Tate Modern, an art world giant made of brick and topped by a smokestack.

Housed in a converted power plant, hugging the Thames River's south bank opposite St. Paul's Cathedral, Tate Modern has been hailed as a museum masterpiece of design and art.

Bold and awe-inspiring, it grabs a nickname as hip as some of the art on display: "The Cathedral of Cool."

Thursday, Queen Elizabeth II will preside at Tate Modern's official opening, 38 years after she dedicated the building when it took life as the Bankside Power Station.

The first of the expected 2 million annual visitors will arrive Friday. Entry is free. Only the weary feet of tourists are likely to be taxed.

"An opening like this won't happen again for many, many decades," says Lars Nittve, 45, transplanted from Sweden to serve as Tate Modern's director.

A great contemporary collection, often in storage, has found its home by the water.

In a teeming neighborhood on the once-unfashionable south side of the Thames, old London is gaining new life, with Shakespeare's Globe Theater, pubs, coffee shops, housing projects and the new Tate.

Topping it all off, the two sides of the river will be tethered by a pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge, which will deliver tourists from the edge of the mighty financial center, London, to the art world's future.

Some are saying that the arrival of Tate Modern, coupled with London's traditional art trade and modern art renaissance, makes this the world's No. 1 art city.

"In terms of creativity, of having a lively and good and energetic contemporary art scene with many good artists working, I think London, together with Los Angeles, are the creative hot spots," says Nittve, clinging to a diplomatic course.

For now, London features the building of the moment, which mirrors a certain place and time.

Backed by proceeds from the National Lottery, Britain is in the midst of a museum boom not seen here since the Victorian Age. Museums have sprouted up and down the country, celebrating everything from pop music to regional artists. Some may be white elephants. Others may stand the test of time.

But it's Tate Modern that has fired the imagination and provided the grist for books, television specials and critical essays detailing its creation from a disused power plant to a gleaming modern jewel.

In his "Cathedral of Cool" essay, The Observer's Andrew Marr wrote of "a great emblem of old British industrialism still with its massive girders and Glasgow-built cranes, stripped down and dressed in cool new clothing by young Swiss architects, to exhibit videos, mud paintings, blocks of basalt, delicate constructions of plastic and glass."

He continued: "This, we know, is part of the modern story of Britain, as the old economy gives way to a new global one; manufacturing to service; heavy to light."

In every way, the Tate Modern project is audacious. Established by Sir Henry Tate in 1887, the Tate museum has branched from its traditional Millbank home a few blocks from the Houses of Parliament.

For years, only a fraction of the treasures could be shown at a time at Millbank and two other sites, in Liverpool and St. Ives. But with the opening of Tate Modern, at least 50 percent of the collection can be displayed, Nittve says.

The original site, called Tate Britain, will display British art from 1500 to the present. Tate Modern will feature a modern collection of international art from 1900 onwards.

The classic postwar power plant designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott - who gave Britain its distinctive red telephone boxes - has been polished, shaped, and topped with a two-story glass box by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.

From the outside, the building still looks like a cross between a power station and a communist-style information ministry building. But inside, it is welcoming and functional, a modernist's delight with the requisite creature comforts of oak floors, cafes and an eye-jarring, red 200-seat theater.

It's the entry that might leave the public gasping with delight.

Patrons will amble down the kind of ramp found at a football stadium into a hall, 500 feet long, 75 feet wide and 115 feet tall.

"The sensation is one of scale, of being in a covered space so enormous you could fly a plane through it," Hugh Pearman of the Sunday Times of London has written of this long, soulful stroll.

From here, escalators, stairs and elevators will lift the masses to simple galleries and wonderful works arranged in a radical design. Instead of being hung chronologically, the art will be grouped by theme: landscape, nude, still life and historical.

"This single chronological history indicates there is a single story of modern art," Nittve says. "We know it's a much more complex series of stories, multiple stories. There are lots of interesting relationships of different kinds."

The mixing and matching yields such contrasts as Claude Monet's painting of water lilies on the wall with Richard Long's red sandstone circle on the floor.

"Monet depicted nature, painted nature, and Long brought nature into the difference," Nittve says.

What will mark success for the museum? Nittve says that in the short term, the reaction of art critics and the public; in the longer term, visitor numbers and meeting a budget in a monumental house.

"It's an incredible landmark, with high visibility and enormous presence," he says, while acknowledging the power plant is a "tough building."

"It creates a bit of a challenge," he says. "We have to be even better in receiving our public and making them feel comfortable with the total experience. We have to be friendlier in our style and behavior and more welcoming. But it is a great space for art."

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