Turning to Tate Modern: Royal Academicians reflect on the Switch House

Published 23 May 2016

As Tate puts the finishing touches to its monumental new extension, architect Eric Parry RA considers its aesthetic and cultural impact, while painters Gillian Ayres RA and Timothy Hyman RA preview accompanying retrospective shows of Khakhar and O’Keeffe.

  • From the Summer 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Eric Parry RA on the new spirit of expansion embodied in Tate Modern’s Switch House

    Rising immediately south of the body of Tate Modern, a new building has been emerging from the builders’ shroud, its summit celebrated with a public terrace. In many of London’s great cultural institutions we are seeing a shift in social and architectural focus away from the projects of the last decades of the 20th century, where the experience of internal intensification was predominant, to an expansive outward reach. For several of them, this involves the creation of new entrances and more interactive spaces where back doors become an open inviting ‘front’. None of these metamorphoses is as overt as that of Tate Modern’s Switch House.

    Its architects Herzog & de Meuron won the original competition held in 1994 to transform Bankside Power Station, which marked the start of their well-deserved global status. The Switch House had been envisaged, in principle, 22 years ago when that brave decision was taken to create Tate Modern within the disused and threatened shell of the 1950s power station, as part of the future Southwark regeneration plan. The idea, mutually beneficial to both Tate and Southwark, was to create a catalyst to draw life and economy southwards to a derelict hinterland, the success of which the new building now fully celebrates. It is also the culmination of a continuous dialogue between client and architect that has stimulated important bridges between the visual arts and architecture.

    Materially the Switch House was conceived as a glass crystal in counterpoint to Giles Gilbert Scott’s brick box and the factory-styled, two-storied glass container that Herzog & de Meuron mounted on its north wing. However the new surrounding buildings, quick on the commercial draw, are made of lightweight wrappings of metal and glass, and Tate’s architects cleverly moved to a heavy-boned skeleton of pre-fabricated concrete sections clad in a weighty perforated brick overcoat.

  • View of the new Tate Modern extension site, 2016

    View of the new Tate Modern extension site, 2016

    View of Site Courtesy Lobster Pictures Ltd 2016/© Tate

  • The result is a wonderfully crafted building set in a sea of haptic mediocrity. It is in complimentary harmony with the impervious weight of the brickwork of the original power station, now known as the Boiler House. Playful contradictions make it instantly memorable: primitive gravitas / kinetic horizontality; shadowed relief / perforated skin; permanence / pre-fabrication; strange / familiar.

    The site was a given but with the original building’s available wing (the east is still occupied by an electrical substation) came the geometric complication of the tripartite basement oil-storage drums. Tate Modern has retained these as performance spaces, and the careful preservation of the patina of the old combined with the surgical insertion of the new structure that supports the twisting orthogonal building above, is a masterpiece of architectural engineering.

    The vertical stack of spaces of the Switch House counterbalances the horizontal sequences of the Boiler House and is balanced at the midpoint by Tate Exchange, a highly innovative ‘open experiment’ – an invitation to new audiences, with two floors given to education and exploration. In the new gallery spaces the promise is made that the majority of exhibits will be acquisitions from the last 20 years. The whole is a dramatic representation of a new outward perspective.

    Timothy Hyman RA appraises a pioneering Indian painter who became his close friend

    Tate Modern’s retrospective of Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003) introduces an outstanding painter, celebrated today above all for his startling, visionary images of homosexual love.

    He grew up to become a chartered accountant in Bombay; at 30 – after two years of an art criticism course, his only art training – he settled in Baroda with a morning job as accountant, leaving the rest of his day free for painting. Khakhar wrote short stories in a hybrid, half-westernised Gujurati and for many years sought an equivalent painting idiom. An RCA student awakened him to Indian street culture; in Henri Rousseau he found fully realised figures innocent of ‘high-cultural’ overtones. Around 1972, after many false starts, Khakhar’s art at last gelled in a sequence of wonderful signboard-like paintings: watch repairer, barber or simply a chai stall in a landscape, each separate attribute itemised with an accountant’s crisp precision.

    In 1976, at a Serpentine opening, I spied a small, short-sighted man scrutinising Howard Hodgkin’s paintings as intently as I was and we struck up a conversation. Bhupen might present as a ‘naïve painter’ but his responses to art proved penetrating; speaking of our shared love for the Sienese painters, he explained that “they were trying to evolve a language for the first time… how to include the narrative aspects in a painting without destroying its structure.” Entering his house in 1981, I saw on the easel a magnificent Lorenzetti-like panorama; later, I was astonished by the monumental pink expanse of Yayati (1987), named after the old king in The Mahabharata, who asks his son to give him his youth.

    Khakhar, whose father died when he was four, devoted his adult life to relationships with a succession of elderly men; his self-portrait in Yayati as a white-haired angel glides erect into a moribund companion. He doubted Yayati could ever be exhibited in India, so I carried it rolled back to Clerkenwell, where it presided above our bed – given over to Bhupen when he stayed. It was from our door that a dark limousine took him each morning to paint his fugitive friend, Salman Rushdie (1995; pictured). The picture is now in the National Portrait Gallery. Bhupen’s ascent from ‘insignificant man’ to international art star was exciting to witness.

  • Bhupen Khakhar, Salman Rushdie (‘The Moor’)

    Bhupen Khakhar, Salman Rushdie (‘The Moor’), 1995.

    © Estate of Bhupen Khakhar / National Portrait Gallery, London.

  • Gillian Ayres RA on the visionary american modernist Georgia o’Keeffe

    Georgia O’Keeffe was born in 1887 and died in 1986 – one of seven children from parents of Dutch, Hungarian and Irish immigrant descent. O’Keeffe was key to the foundation of American modernism, but strangely none of her paintings of flowers and landscapes are held in any of the public collections in the UK. However, this summer’s O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern offers an important opportunity for people outside the US to see her work.

    This major retrospective includes a room that considers the professional and personal relationship O’Keeffe had with her husband Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and gallery owner. Stieglitz organised Picasso’s first exhibition in the US, and through his gallery O’Keeffe had access to the most current avant-garde art in the first quarter of the 20th century.

    Stieglitz had established himself in the art world as an impresario of aesthetics – volatile and unpredictable, but utterly sincere. Their personalities were very different: he was gregarious and talkative and loved being surrounded by people, while she was an intense, quiet genius, and a ‘country girl’ who loved being under the open skies. But from the beginning Stieglitz appreciated her extraordinary talent.

    O’Keeffe was also influenced by the photographer Paul Strand. Writing about his photographs, she declared, “I almost lost my mind over them.” Strand used sharp focusing and severe cropping to produce bold and original compositions – “photographs that are as queer in shapes as Picasso’s drawings.” He transformed ordinary objects into purely abstract compositions, showing them in a compelling new light. O’Keeffe’s paintings were clearly developed from her contact with these photographs – I think of such wonderful works like Blue and Green Music (1919–21; pictured) and the powerful Abstraction White Rose (1927; pictured).

  • The Japanese artist Hokusai – whose work was introduced to O’Keeffe by her tutor Arthur Wesley Dow – was another profound early influence, as was Wassily Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1914). But above all O’Keeffe formed an art from her own courage, daring and haunting original vision, which drew upon the vast American space of New Mexico.

    People used to say that women couldn’t paint, or be great artists. So just the fact that O’Keeffe existed – along with Sonia Delaunay, Natalia Goncharova and Barbara Hepworth – was tremendously important. O’Keeffe was a role model for many other women artists who came after her.

    Tate Modern’s new building, Switch House, opens on 17 June.
    Bhupen Khakhar is open from 1 June until 6 November; Georgia O’Keeffe is open from 6 July until 30 October 2016.

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