raw power

Tate Modern’s Underworld: The Tanks beneath the lawn

Found objects have long had their place in art, most notably since the provocations of Dadaists such as Duchamp with his ‘readymades’. It’s not the object, it’s the manipulation of context and associations that makes the art, which is why, for instance, you will find two scruffy detached jet engines sitting on the grass outside Edinburgh’s modern art gallery. The mere fact that artist Roger Hiorns selected and sited them is enough, our imaginations do the rest. And it’s just the same with Tate Modern’s new ‘Tanks’ galleries.


These existed, unheeded, for decades: three enormous circular underground concrete oil tanks, arranged in a cloverleaf formation beneath the south lawn of what was previously Bankside power station. After it closed, this 1950s brick-and steel industrial cathedral by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was stripped out and part-converted into Tate Modern. Such has been its success since it opened in 2000, often overwhelmed with visitors, that the Tate invited back its present-day architects, the Swiss duo of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, to design a large extension on this south side. After several years scrabbling for funding, this £215m addition is now rising from the ground. It has a ready-made basement: the tanks. And so they have been brought back into use, ahead of the rest of the extension. What was previously just a system to store a million gallons of oil has become art and performance space. I first walked into these tanks years ago when they were just empty tanks, still with a faint reek of oil. Now they look and feel very different. Just as with the whole building, which went strangely unnoticed during the industrial phase of its life and suddenly came into focus as a public art museum, the tanks have benefited from found-object syndrome.

Architects see things differently from more pragmatically-minded engineers, but they often co-opt engineers in the service of architectural drama. Here was an opportunity: the concrete legs supporting the new extension had to be threaded past the tanks. Down there it’s a warren of bunker-like brutal concrete spaces, but mostly big enough, and certainly interesting enough, to be useful. So Herzog and de Meuron decided to go with the prevailing aesthetic. You’re surrounded by rough old 1950s concrete? Right then, let’s add a whole load more concrete. Let’s bring the new columns crashing down at angles through the existing spaces. Let’s flow the polished-concrete floor of the turbine hall through into these new spaces. And then let the artists decide what to make of them.

The three original tanks have become two public galleries – the third is taken up with back-of-house space and lumps of equipment powering air-conditioning. One tank has become a performance venue, its circularity offset by a square defined within it by four new columns. I saw a dance performance there by choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a minimalist reponse to the music of Steve Reich, and the two dancers stayed within the square while the audience occupied the surrounding circle. It worked, acoustically as well as visually.


The second tank is for installations, especially film, and this one is more archaeologically ‘correct’: its ceiling is held up by nine of the original slender steel columns that used to sit in the oil. A rambling immersive piece by Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim, part-sculpture, part film, occupies this space. But there are also two other big rooms reclaimed for works from the Tate’s collection: Lis Rhodes’s ‘Light Music’ and Suzanne Lacy’s Crystal Quilt’. Finally there is the oddest found space of all, a little cylindrical room lined with bolted steel segments, being used for a sound piece. Even architect Jacques Herzog, who I found sitting there, couldn’t remember the original use of this dungeon-like room. But out in the foyer with its jazz syncopation of mighty columns, he knew what he was going to do next: send a very big spiral staircase drilling up through the roof into the new extension, linking existing and new parts of the museum. That won’t be ready until 2014 but even now, you get a sense of what this will be like. “It gives you a balance,” said Herzog. “Before, when you entered the turbine hall, all the gallery was to your left. Now you can turn right as well.”

Call me a concrete fetishist, but I love the Tanks. Being in an underground bunker with no daylight has never seemed so appealing, though I don’t know how long I could stand it for before I craved outdoors. But what I love more than the Tanks proper is the entry sequence. They’ve just removed a couple of the brick panels which line the south side of the turbine hall, so opening up this strange new/old world like a petrified forest. It’s not just the columns and stonkingly massive beams dancing round you and each other, it’s also all the marks, including ancient oil stains, now-meaningless painted industrial numbers, holes where electric cables used to run through, flights of steps leading to blocked-off walls which now look like a set of alien thrones from Dr. Who. All this is good, foyers are almost never fascinating places like this. The tanks themselves are less exciting as architecture but that is right, because they were never conceived as architecture and it’s what happens inside them that counts.


Apropos of which: who’d have thought it? A gallery supposedly dedicated to visual arts now has things like dance performances going on – and performance art in general. As Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota noted at the opening, what was edgily avant-garde in 1970s art culture when he was young, is now mainstream. You could spend a long time dreaming up a new kind of building to do all this in. But why bother, when you’ve got a readymade cellar under your gallery like this?
Herzog and de Meuron, since winning the competition for Tate Modern back in the 1990s, have left their sober Swiss roots to become providers of sometimes startlingly wilful , but always intelligent, buildings for cultural clients around the world. They are, in the jargon, ‘starchitects’ and as we know, starchitects tend to specialise in funny shapes. The Tate Modern extension they are building is indeed a slightly funny shape but nonetheless manages somehow to channel the industrial brick-monolith spirit of the old building. For the first phase of Tate Modern, I thought they intervened slightly too much: the galleries over-sanitised the found space. Down in the tanks, though, they’ve recognised a good thing when they found it. They’ve known when to leave well alone. It’s raw, it’s brutal, and it’s good.

Words and photos © Hugh Pearman, 2012


Herzog de Meuron, architects: https://herzogdemeuron.com/
Tate Modern extension project: https://www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/tate-modern-project/

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