Architecture: Art can build a bridge
The north-south cultural gap is disappearing.
Friday 23 October 1998
In the week that the Governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George makes unfavourable comparisons between the North-east and South-east, it is time to review the progress of two ambitious modern art galleries for the 21st century. The new Tate in London, which will house an international 20th century art collection, has celebrated its topping-out and will be opened by the Queen in spring 2000. The Baltic at Tyneside, originally scheduled to open in 1996, has only just begun emptying the flour mills of its contents, 136 reinforced concrete silos to open in autumn 2001.
Fancy brickwork and a slender chimney herald the new Tate at Bankside, one of the few landmark millennium projects about which everyone feels confident. The Millennium Commission gave pounds 50m, the most that they can give, to the Trustees of the Tate to house their permanent modern art collection in a cavernous old power station on the Thames and sponsors stumped up the rest. Southwark provided pounds 1m early in 1996 for a feasibility study which has taken the Cinderella of South London on to a world stage.
Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery at Millbank has spent a decade looking at new ways of housing modern art collections. Experience or Interpretation? The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art, published by Thames & Hudson in 1966, pithily spells out the problem. Galleries always reflect the curator's view of history at the expense of differing viewpoints. How to balance the interests of the artists, the curator and the visitor preoccupies Serota.
"Three significant developments are associated with the evolution of modern art during this century," he believes. "First, a change in the relationship between the work of art and the space in which it is shown. Secondly, transfer by some artists of their place of work from a secluded studio to the public arena of a museum. Finally, a greater awareness by artists of the conventions of the museum itself."
Historical grouping by schools merely highlights weaknesses in the collection - in Russian and German art at the Tate, and a few sculptures by Matisse and Picasso. The old, encyclopaedic art historian's approach in chronological order is "neither achievable nor desirable", He wants art to be experienced, the way that you discover in almost tangible waves of light from the Seagram Murals, hung by the artist, Mark Rothko, at the Tate, Millbank. The world created by the artist must be entered psychologically as well as physically and Serota quotes the sculptor Carl Andre on the evolution of sculpture in the 20th century as a change of interest from sculpture as form to "sculpture as structure" and "sculpture as place".
Bit of a tall order for the architect, especially inheriting the awesome old power station by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. "The conversion of a power station into a successful gallery is going to be tricky," Frank Gehry, the architect of this century's most celebrated gallery, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, predicted confidently. The architects Hertzog and de Meuron have arranged galleries on three floors, with few exits and dedicated routes, and beamed in light from a sequence of light-boxes on the roof. They prototyped these light-boxes in their hometown of Basel, to bathe massive train sheds for Swiss Railways in a translucent diffused light.
"They'd make a wonderful museum," Nick Serota observed when he went on a site tour. Hertzog and de Meuron have a holistic approach to industrial workplaces. The building that nudged this relatively inexperienced duo into fame is a modest one - a signal box in Basel at the end of the railway tracks. But this is no ordinary signal box. It's a work of art. According to the art critic David Sylvester, "it's a Richard Serra in action". Serra gained a world-wide reputation for his powerful, gravity-defying minimalist sculpture, that relies on the appearance of a precarious balance for its drama.
Hertzog and de Meuron's signal box is a copper-clad, four-storeyed box that appears to have grown gills in place of windows. Housing a mainframe computer, the Swiss alternative to the Fat Controller, it appears to breathe in the balmy Swiss air from these rippling gills that push out of line the facade of wraparound, evenly paced strips of copper. The architects fought for the copper for aesthetic reasons, and won because it cuts radiation from the computers. Snap-happy tourists point cameras up its curved hemlines to photograph these curious anthropomorphic ripples which hide a machine. If this is Hal, then he's human.
Ironically, it is the failure of the machine age and the steam and clank of moving machinery parts, replaced by silent electronic circuitry, that the new Tate celebrates in the conversion of an old powerhouse.
The gritty, industrial Baltic Flour Mills is a landmark on the Tyne that thwarted earlier attempts to convert it.For a start, it is a vertical building. Its stolid brick walls proved just to be no more than wrapping- paper around a solid concrete core of 136 reinforced cement silos. Take them out - as the conversion has to - and only a frail shell is left. A young architect, Dominic Williams, scooped the competition win to convert the Baltic because he proposed taking out the north and south facades and replacing them with glass, an idea that is going ahead so, really, only the two sides of the building remain. But Dominic Williams sees that outline as commanding a strong presence on the Tyne. He talks about the conversion as "rejuvenation".
Against money battles, endless advisory consultants and a changing game- plan, Dominic has stood firm in his battle to keep the Baltic looking pretty much like it did as a flour mill, using the argument of urban regeneration. Sometimes he must have wished he hadn't. The project has reinvented itself several times, with arguments breaking out over the contents which paralysed works on site. Publishing companies were going to set up presses inside. Educational schemes were set up and abandoned.
Then the building was to be shared with a dance club, post-Manchester rave scene with a laser light show outside. Richard Wilson's neon sculpture was going on the facade, an idea that generated alluring computer images of the new face of the flour mills for which he had to be compensated.
All these ideas have been scuppered since the arrival this summer of a firm hand at the till, director Sune Nordgren from Sweden. "It was very confused. But the building is not just a billboard for different things.
"It has five galleries for touring exhibitions, and workshop studios which will attract world famous artists like Bill Viola, James Turrell, Anish Kapoor, Nancy Spiro,Cindy Sherman, some of the artists I brought to Malmo in Sweden."
Sune Nordgren is clear about the importance of artists' studios and workshops in the gallery. "Why will they want to come here? Because we will provide the best working conditions and technical facilities."
The comparison with the Baltic is not the Tate, which he sees as a new museum of modern art, but the Henry Moore Institute at Dean Clough in Halifax, where artists work in an old carpet factory to make new works which are then exhibited there. His outlook seems to have fired up both Gateshead and Newcastle, formerly long-feuding councils, which are now united with the Millennium bridge linking them.
The Angel of the North, Anthony Gormley's famous sculpture, helped the Baltic get off the ground. People were hostile to it at first, but when they heard the money came from London and that the Angel was built in local materials with local skills, attitudes changed. "Also, it looked like an angel," Sune Nordgren observes astutely.
Almost half the lottery money will be used on the building. Dominic Williams has used the silo foundations as a footprint for five load- bearing galleries within a straightforward box. "Modern art is often more difficult to exhibit than 18th century paintings and sculptures," the director believes. That's because artists work in such unusual materials.
Textiles, wax, live animals, smoke, dangerous chemicals, tar and oil or water - Sune Nordgren has exhibited precious works featuring all of these liabilities. A hundred years ago, galleries educated visitors in a series of rooms housing chronologically ordered collections.
Today, things have changed.Museums and galleries now celebrate the open, fluid spaces of converted buildings that allow viewers to experience art, that dread, New Millennium word.
THE TATE AT BANKSIDE
Cost: pounds 130m
Lottery money: pounds 50m from the Millennium Commission
Funding needed: pounds 16 m
Opening: spring 2000
Location: 1930's brickwork electricity station by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott
at Bankside on the Thames
Architects: Basel based duo, Pierre de Meuron,48, and Jacques Hertzhog, also 48
Getting There: Norman Foster's pounds 17m footbridge from St Pauls to the Tate links the City of London with Southwark. accelerated from pounds 10 m
Collection: a permanent museum for international 20th century modern art
Curator: Lars Nitve, from Stockholm where he was an art critic for a conservative paper, has a good American arts address book and seeks to improve the collection by securing gifts and loans
Running Costs: About pounds 10m a year, shared between Government subsidies, sponsorship and earnings
The Cost: pounds 46m
Lottery Funding: pounds 33.5m from the Arts Council which includes for the first time a guaranteed revenue budget for five years once it opens
Funding: Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, Northern Arts, English Partnerships and the European Regional Development Fund. The Baltic will be built by the Gateshead Council and handed over, at the opening, to trustees
Opening: Autumn 2001
Location: The 1940s Baltic Flour Mills at Gateshead Quayside on the Tyne at Newcastle
Architects: Dominic Williams, 33, of Ellis Williams
Getting There: Millennium Bridge (pounds 18.6 m) by Chris Wilkinson, accelerated from pounds 11m to include fabric of the bridge, steel work and quayside
rebuilding and strengthening. Funding to match the pounds 9.2. from the
Millennium Commission is harder because sponsors like to have the bridge named after them.
Collection: Touring exhibitions and workshops for in-house artists
Curator: Sune Nordgren from Stockholm where he was the art critic for a liberal newspaper has strong European network, and the conviction that artists will pour into the Baltic because they have workshops and studios there
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