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New Tate Modern Extension Honors Old Space While Looking Forward

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The new space, called the Switch House, adds square footage for exhibitions and increased visitors

The Tate Modern’s new £260 million (about $370 million) extension is at once unexpected and familiar. Partly that’s because the entire building has been clad in a staggering 336,000 bricks "to tie it back conceptually and visually to the existing power station," says Ascan Mergenthaler, a senior partner at Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architecture firm in charge of its design as well as of the 2000 conversion of the postwar power station that houses the original museum.

Located on London’s South Bank in an increasingly architecturally chaotic part of the city, and surrounded on many sides by ever-encroaching metal-and-glass luxury condominiums and office towers, the new 10-story Switch House (as it's known) stands out for its look of solidity and permanence, its twisting and faceted pyramid shape, and its remarkable, textured skin.

"From the outside it looks kind of austere, just like the existing power station," says senior curator for photography and international art Simon Baker, "but once inside you realize that many of the bricks are covering glass and daylight just pours in."

The light does indeed pour in; through the long industrial windows reminiscent of those in Giles Gilbert Scott’s original structure, but also, and repeatedly, through the perforated brickwork, creating beautiful dappled motifs and suffused light effects that move alluringly across the concrete walls and untreated oak floors.

Tate Modern was originally designed for two million annual visitors but that number soon skyrocketed to five million a year, making it not only the world’s most visited museum of modern and contemporary art, but leading to many of the galleries and other spaces feeling somewhat constrained.

"It’s a very busy museum and it was lacking breathing space to allow people to get around and enjoy the experience of being in the galleries," explains Baker. The new building has not only increased the exhibition space by 60 percent but also made spaces more open and flexible. Each is able to display "larger pieces, installations and very different kinds of work" Baker says. Education facilities and members’ areas have also been expanded and, perhaps most importantly, there are now vast swathes of public space.

"Rather than just having the one vertical core or staircase, we created this path, or winding street, through the entire building that connects all the different programs and levels of the building and is all public space," explains Mergenthaler. "There’s a coffee spot here, a little square there, a bigger plaza all of a sudden and benches and niches where you can sit down." The Tate will use the diverse spaces along this architectural promenade to display art in non-conventional ways he says but primarily it has been designed as "a space just for people to hang out".

The new building’s gently folding form is the result of context, viewing corridors (required by planning), and a desire to follow the geometry of the power station, explains Mergenthaler. It is also "rooted in the Tanks, both curatorially and literally."

The Tanks are massive drums on the ground floor that once housed the oil needed to power the station. These dark and atmospheric ‘found spaces’ were excavated in 2012 and left raw and largely untouched; They are now dedicated to live and improvised performance, and also serve as the foundations for the new tower. "The journey through the new building starts in the Tanks and winds up to the 360-degree viewing platform at the top," says Mergenthaler.

Thanks to the building’s off-kilter, tapered, and tactile brick form, its dramatic lines and angles, not to mention the diversity of art on display, that journey is exhilarating and inspiring. And accomplishes the museum’s and architects’ aim of creating a genuinely public and civic building that will spill out on to new gardens below. Despite its hefty price tag the new Tate Modern feels the opposite of exclusive, it is a building that is adaptable, enduring and open-to-all.

The Tate Modern's new space, Switch House, opens to the public tomorrow, Friday, June 17. For more information on the building and upcoming programming, visit the Tate Modern’s website.