The power and the glory: a tale from the riverbank

Power into Art: Creating Tate Modern, Bankside by Karl Sabbagh (Allen Lane, £20)
Click to follow

The story of Bankside is that of a sleeping beauty woken from slumber by the kiss of lottery money in the form of a £50m grant. Transformed into Tate Modern, which will challenge New York's Moma as the leading museum of modern art, it has the eyes of the world on it. But eight years ago it was one of London's unknown buildings. Few could see any beauty in it. A derelict power station, full of redundant machinery and drifts of pigeon-droppings, it sat forgotten opposite St Paul's. Southwark Council had planted a few trees in a lame attempt to disguise the vertical acre of brick it presented to the river.

The translation of Bankside into an internationally prestigious cultural site is near-miraculous. All the more so, in that the project has been completed on schedule and within its budget of £134m.

Karl Sabbagh's Channel 4 series offered some insight into how this was done. But his book fills out the story, drawing on transcripts of strategic meetings and conversations with key players. The Tate agreed unreservedly to co-operate, but may have regretted it at times. Sabbagh uncovers the compromises, the discussions that ended in deadlock, the tense relations between architect, client and manager, the disappointments, disasters and delays. Near-miracles do take their toll.

Sabbagh admits that his tale is selective, for he has concentrated on the stories that interested him. Nevertheless he carries the reader from the initial search for a site to the completed conversion. Immediately prior to 1994, when this project began, the Tate had undergone reorganisation, set up a large development office and taken steps to improve its public relations. All these factors came into good effect when it boldly announced the international competition that eventually linked the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron with Bankside. By January 1995, the Tate had found a site and architect, but still lacked one vital ingredient - money. What made the project viable was a fax from the Millennium Commission that arrived at 8.01am on 30 October 1995. The Tate had got its £50m.

Sabbagh is vague about the co-funding for the overall capital costs. One condition of the Millennium Fund grant was that the Tate had to demonstrate private-sector support. A lengthy complaint from the director, Sir Nicholas Serota, on the lack of private giving to cultural institutions, suggests this was no easy matter. Americans have been more generous, Serota implies, but Sabbagh does not ask for precise figures. It's unclear how much of the remaining £64m came from public or private funds.

This lack of investigation limits the usefulness of Power into Art. But as a fly-on-the wall witness of events it fascinates, and much is found here that might be forgotten. Sabbagh is acute on the edgy relationship between the architects and the Tate. There was disappointment at the Tate's Millbank HQ when, soon after the Herzog and de Meuron team won the competition, one of its key partners pulled out. Jacques Herzog remained the ideas man, but most responsibility rested on the young Harry Gugger. At Serota's insistence, he worked with a British firm of architects to obviate any misunderstandings between the Swiss and British construction industry.

Once 50 or more contractors moved in, the project became hugely complex. The firm that won the steel contract, worth over £6m, rued the day when it discovered how difficult it was to thread a new structure within an existing roof and elevation. Delays in schedule had a knock-on effect on work in other parts. And the last thing the project director wanted was an architect parachuting in, as Herzog often did, with new ideas.

But, from the evidence of this book, the person who made it his quest to stay close to the project at every stage, with a gimlet eye for detail, was Serota. It was his cunning, diplomacy, management skills, tenacity and vision that kept things on course. He has given London a millennium event of which to be truly proud.