142. South Bank spring – Tate Modern, London

london-south-bank-and-st-pauls-cathedral.jpgIt’s spring. The sun is out. The clocks have changed. And so have I.

I left my old job three weeks ago. It was time for change, and so for a few weeks my time’s my own. My days are brighter now, and I feel refreshed, revitalised and renewed.

The sun shone all the way into London. I stepped out of the train into an unfamiliar crystal haze as a cool spring day stretched all along the South Bank. The river walk was empty in the early morning, and yet through the silence I could hear the echo of running shoes on tarmac, all around me. I was only walking, but I could feel that exhilaration.

It took me just a quarter of an hour from Waterloo Station to reach my meeting at Tate Modern. Fifteen minutes to gaze across the Thames, at the city shining back at me across the water. Pale blue pastel sky above the distant dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, a vision of glinting white limestone pillars growing ever nearer.

london-tate-modern-bankside-power-station.jpgThen suddenly I was there, and facing tall brown walls rising austere and blank above me. And it’s true, that for a historic building, Tate Modern might seem somewhat disappointing.

Just a huge brick block, with a tall brick tower attached. Minimalist design. The work of a famous architect it may be (Giles Gilbert Scott), but it’s not that much to look at.

And yet, the concept it holds within is remarkable. The idea, the sheer audacity, of rescuing one of London’s redundant buildings, Bankside Power Station, and turning it into one of the greatest modern art museums in all the world.

Taking an empty, useless space, the main turbine hall, and transforming it into an exhibit in itself – a darkly yawning and cathedral-like void seven stories high which speaks of this building’s industrial past and its iconic present more volubly than any audio guide imaginable.

My meeting is in the rooftop café inside. Just another London restaurant, really, and yet – it has one of the very best views in London. Out over the Millennium Bridge and straight across the river to St Paul’s. City skyscrapers languish in the haze to the right, whilst to my left stretch Blackfriars and Cannon Street bridges with their buses and trains scurrying from the south.

london-tate-modern-turbine-hall-carsten-holler-exhibition.jpgAn hour later, the depths of the turbine hall call me back. The current exhibition here comprises a silver stream of frighteningly steep helter-skelters twisting from the museum’s upper levels into the cavern far beneath.

Would I slide, or slink away into the daylight, turning my back on fear and an opportunity lost for ever ?

I slid.

A city gent in a sharp suit, hurtling fearfully through a metal tube deep inside a redundant factory. If that is art, then I can only recommend it.

A few minutes later, I blinked my way out into my sunny stroll back towards Waterloo. On a day like this, I felt there could be no better place to feel spring burst through. And it made me ponder, just how much this city has to offer.

The people at my meeting had told me that despite all their years working in London, they’d never been to Tate Modern before today. Or even to St Paul’s. Or the London Eye.

london-millennium-bridge-st-pauls-cathedral.jpgThey didn’t know there was once a Roman chariot arena half a mile in front of us, next to where the Millennium Bridge now stands.

They didn’t know that the River Fleet once flowed into the Thames just opposite here, before being diverted underground.

I smiled, and yet I wanted to stand up right there and shake them. To say, hey – just wake up and look around you.

London is a great city, and you need to feel it, to live it more.

Live it like a tourist, and make the most of it, just for once. Take a tour. You don’t have to run 26 miles around it in one day to get a sense of this city (although that surely helps). You simply need to gaze upwards, for a lunchtime or two, and glimpse beyond those mean commuter tunnels and drizzly bus stops.

This is a world city, with its history and energy right in front of you, its very vitality just waiting to be unlocked at every turn.

london-south-bank-millennium-bridge-gherkin-tower-42-runner.jpgIt always has that effect on me, this place. It makes me realise, that the more you look at London, the more there is to find.

And the more I come here, the more I want to run.

One night along this waterfront, I resolved to run the marathon. And this morning – I was only walking, but well, you never know …

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141. A winter sky and green and blue – Hyde Park, London
36. The Embankment, inspiration and reality
51. London Calling
94. London Olympics 2012


13 responses to “142. South Bank spring – Tate Modern, London

  1. Nice photo at the top there. I love the contrast between the historic past on the left and centre, and vibrant modern rebuilding with the cranes on the right.
    London doesn’t stand still.

    People gripe about what affects their daily lives and this affects their view of London as a place, but beyond that box of ME, London is more than congestion charges, city academies and the demise of Harrods (to name but a few). It’s full of stories, history and its past.

  2. Thanks, Sarah – I certainly agree with you there.

    London is sometimes imperfect yet fascinatingly compelling: and like many a friend, London needs to be appreciated on exactly that basis.

  3. I actually like the Tate Modern – or rather, the idea of transforming the building. However I was not enamoured by the plans for the annexe that were passed by the planners – or perhaps the picture wasn’t too good.

    When I took my son on the London Eye and to the Tate Modern, his one remark was ‘London is full of cranes’…

  4. I glimpsed a picture of the design for the Tate Modern extension on the news tonight, and it looked very dramatic and unusual. Edgy, shiny, and almost Libeskind-like in its sheer lack of compromise.

    Some would say chaotically alien and ugly.

    I’ll have to reserve judgment until I read more about it, Louise.

    I can see it’s going to be controversial. But I’ll bet at least that it will gleam in the sunshine – all too rare as that may be in these climes.

  5. A quick search, and the BBC has a summary, but the Guardian has the most pictures.

    ‘Startling’ is one word for it.

  6. Thanks for the Guardian pics, Roads. They confirm the pic I saw – sorry, it just doesn’t fit I don’t think. It may gleam in the sun (three days a year)…!

  7. I’ve only ever visited London as a tourist…but I loved it, mainly because I was seeing ‘in the flesh’ all the places I’d read about in history books (and novels!). There’s so much I didn’t know about it, though…the Roman chariot arena, the River Fleet…next time I go, I’ll be more discerning in my sightseeing.

    I’m not sure a silver helter-skelter is art but it sounds great fun!

  8. Those two details both come from Peter Ackroyd’s biography of London. It’s a weighty 800-page tome rich in local historical colour.

    The place names miraculously still tell their story here – Knightrider Street lies just uphill from the Millennium Bridge, close by where the Roman arena used to stand, with Puddle Dock nearby on the shore, where the River Fleet flows into the Thames.

  9. “It’s spring. The sun is out. The clocks have changed. And so have I.”

    Ah, I love that beginning! New job, new vitality, new dreams? Fascinating subjects all. I wish you many smiles.

  10. Thanks as ever, Jonas, and greetings today from high in the French Alps.

  11. Tate Modern isn’t actually a listed building by the way… (sorry to be a such a pedant!)

  12. Thanks for your acute eye for fine detail, Ed. I’ve corrected accordingly — and for the record here is some further information on the history of the Bankside Power Station building.

    The Twentieth Century Society was set up to protect historic (but sometimes unloved) examples of contemporary architecture. Their pages are presently offline, but I recovered this piece from the Google cache:

    Gavin Stamp and Alan Powers

    The Twentieth Century Society was founded as the Thirties Society in 1979 – the year the Thirties exhibition was shown at the Hayward Gallery. The need for a specialised conservation society covering the period after 1914 (the limit of the scope of the Victorian Society, founded twenty years earlier) was increasingly appreciated in the 1970s as understanding and awareness of twentieth century design was developing.

    Some buildings dating from 1914-39 were already protected by having been recommended for listing by Nikolaus Pevsner in 1970, but these were almost all pioneers of the Modern Movement in England like the Bexhill Pavilion and the Lawn Road flats. Other important works of the period – in different styles – remained unprotected, however, and the public had already been alarmed by casualties such as Oliver P.Bernard’s illuminated Art Deco entrance and foyer to the Strand Palace Hotel, removed in 1969 but rescued in pieces by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

    The immediate catalyst for establishing a new amenity society was perhaps surprising: the proposal to replace Sir Edwin Cooper’s monumental Classical building for Lloyds of London by a new structure (by Richard Rogers). None of the other amenity bodies seemed particularly interested in the quality of the existing building, but Marcus Binney, the founder of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, John Harris, director of the RIBA Drawings Collection, and the writer and journalist (Sir) Simon Jenkins felt that it represented a whole body of important architecture of the period that deserved more sympathetic assessment. …

    … the first [example] … being the National Union of Mineworkers Building in Euston Road, in 1983.

    The society’s first serious case, however, concerned a prominent American-style Art Deco building, the Firestone Factory on the Great West Road by Wallis Gilbert & Partners, which was demolished over a bank holiday weekend in August 1980 by its owners, Trafalgar House, in anticipation of it being listed. This outrage was to the Thirties Society as the destruction of the Euston Arch was to the Victorian Society two decades earlier; it focussed public attention on the necessity for greater protection for 20 th century buildings and led directly to the listing of 150 examples of inter-war architecture (including Battersea Power Station) by the government.

    Subsequent campaigns by the society included that to prevent the wholesale destruction of the traditional red telephone kiosks designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1985-6), and one to preserve the extraordinary Surrealist interior and contents of Edward James’s Monkton House (1985-6). There was much public support for these campaigns, but official opinion took longer to shift. After a long battle, telephone boxes became eligible for listing, but sadly Monkton was not preserved as house open to the public as we had hoped. Other campaigns included one to prevent the unnecessary mutilation of London’s best Underground stations and another to draw attention to that endangered species, the lido.

    By the later 1980s, many good examples of post-war architecture were beginning to be threatened. Knowledge of and scholarship on this period was limited, but the date limit of 1939 for listing was clearly illogical and the society pressed for the adoption of the ‘Thirty Year Rule’ for listing (which already operated in Scotland). This was, however, a time when modern architecture of the post-war years was widely perceived as an irredeemable failure in both human and structural terms, so that the enlargement of the scope of conservation was, as ever, considered a threat to progress, with the press were eager to latch onto stories of a lunatic fringe trying to preserve concrete monstrosities.

    For this reason, it was perhaps fortunate that the test case was the preservation of Bracken House, the home of the Financial Times in the City of London, designed by Sir Albert Richardson, and one of the finest post-war classical buildings. The society’s chairman, Gavin Stamp, successfully campaigned for it to be listed in 1987 and in the end the government accepted the principle of post-war listing. A less than whole-hearted exercise in protecting a few token post-1939 buildings took place in 1988, and the process began again in 1991, under a more sympathetic minister. This time, key members of the Society were invited to work with English Heritage on selecting suitable candidates for listing, backed up by thematic research surveys of post-war architecture all over England. This collaboration was important in ensuring that the choice was pluralistic in its representation of many outstanding but little-known post-war traditional buildings. The chair of the English Heritage Post-War Listing Steering Group, Bridget Cherry, is now the vice-chair of the Twentieth Century Society. Among those recommended was Bankside Power Station, but for political reasons it was never listed, even though it was eventually selected as the site for Tate Modern, as a direct result of the Society drawing attention to its potential for conversion.


    Prejudice and taste in architecture and design is fickle. In 1979, modernism was dominant, and the Thirties Society provided a counterbalance by its focus on other styles. Ten years later, the position was perhaps almost reversed, but by the end of the last century, the pendulum of architectural taste had swung back again. Nevertheless, under both our names and at all times, we have tried to create understanding of and appreciation of the best of all kinds of buildings erected in Britain in the 20th century, and background on the campaign for listing to prevent its demolition.

  13. I can’t speak highly enough of Tate Modern. Even if you don’t like the art, the building has to be seen to see how they’ve converted a turbine plant into a prestigous gallery…and best of all, it’s free. There’s an extension underway too, so I can’t wait to see that completed.

    My wife and I have written a free London City Guide to pass on our own recommendations of what to see and we’ve included a special page on Tate Modern…

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