More than a year before the new Tate gallery at Bankside is due to open, The Independent on Sunday was invited into London's most important new arts building since the National Theatre.
The galleries reach as high as 40 feet, more than double the height of more traditional spaces. The cavernous opening foyer, in the old 100-foot- high great turbine hall, will house a new work commissioned from a major artist by the gallery each year. The first will be announced next month.
And the 150-seat glass-fronted restaurant on the seventh floor is set to become the party venue of the capital, as City workers pour across the new millennium bridge - designed by Sir Norman Foster and the artist Anthony Caro - from St Paul's Cathedral.
Lars Nittve, who was lured from Copenhagen's Louisiana Museum to become the first director of Bankside, said that he is just weeks away from finalising what, from the extensive Tate collection of international modern art, the 60 galleries will house.
"Now when I have a plan, I can go and get a feel for that actual space," he said. "We are making the move from theory to practice. The galleries are not completed - there's a big difference when they're undecorated - but we can start testing out our theories.
"There are very few spaces of this scale. The Tate collection is one of the three or four great collections in the world (alongside Paris and New York), but almost no one has seen it. We've never seen a big chunk. This is the first time one can even imagine being able to."
Key figures of the 20th century, such as Picasso, Rothko, Duchamp and Warhol, where the Tate has significant holdings of their works, will benefit from a gallery each. The best of British - including Bridget Riley, Patrick Caulfield and Howard Hodgkin - will sit alongside artists such as Mondrian and Brancusi where the Tate has acquired great works it has been previously unable to put on permanent display. Sculptures by people such as Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon and some of Joseph Beuys's large-scale installations are also likely to win space.
Mr Nittve is loath to reveal details and is keen to retain the ability to surprise. But Bankside will enable at least 60 per cent of the Tate's collection to be shown, compared with less than 15 per cent at present.
While the Earth Centre in Doncaster will be the first Millennium Lottery- funded scheme to open to the public, on Friday, Bankside is set to be the most significant cultural project when it opens in May 2000.
Nicholas Serota, who remains overall director of the four Tates (Millbank, St Ives, Liverpool and now Bankside), said it had aroused enormous international attention on both sides of the Atlantic. It had even encouraged similar expansion plans at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a gallery it would now rival.
He said: "Bankside will have an enormous impact on artists and others in this country and will lift the place of visual arts in people's consciousness. It's tremendously exciting.
He paid tribute to the Millennium Lottery funding of pounds 50m out of the total pounds 134m cost. There is pounds 10m still to raise.
"What the lottery funding has done is to make this project a reality and to accelerate the date by which Britain would join the best galleries of modern art in the world. We might have got there by 2005 or 2010 but we would not have got there by the year 2000."
It should ensure that London never again loses major exhibitions because of lack of space. The Matisse show of 1992 and the Brancusi of 1995 went elsewhere because there was no gallery big enough to hold them here.
Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, said Bankside was the most important new centre for modern art at the new millennium. "There is a phenomenal amount of space to play with. I'm just staggered by it."
Louise Nicholson, who has written a number of books on the history of London, said Bankside was part of probably the most exciting period of building in the capital since the last century. "This is the flagship, the star," she said.
The scheme will also leave more space at the Tate on Millbank for showing British art from 1500 to the present day, as it was originally set up to do in 1897. The main gallery, which is itself undergoing a pounds 32m extension, will be able to display many more Stubbses, Constables and Sickerts alongside British moderns such as Francis Bacon.
"It will be very exciting showing lots of the things we haven't been seeing," Mr Serota said.
OTHER PROJECTS ON THE WAY ...
Eden Project, Cornwall: pounds 75m; pounds 37.15m lottery grant (LG) to build two 60m biospheres. First stage on target for Easter 2000.
Millennium Point, Birmingham: Multi-media centre. Within pounds 113.4m budget, half LG. On schedule for September 2001.
Earth Centre, Doncaster: pounds 100m centre for environmental research and sustainable technology. Half LG. Opening 2 April.
Millennium Link: pounds 78.5m (LG pounds 32.2m) to re-open Forth & Clyde canal by early summer 2001.
Odyssey Project, Belfast: Science centre, film theatre, indoor arena. Due on schedule, within pounds 91m (half LG) budget, November.
Glasgow Science Centre: Interactive project on reclaimed docklands, opening Easter 2001. pounds 71.5m (half LG).
National Space Science Centre, Leicester: pounds 46. 5m research and leisure centre; largest planetarium outside London. Opens Feb 2001. pounds 2m short; LG pounds 23.25m.
British Museum Great Court, London: pounds 97.9m renovation as public space needs another pounds 5m, but on schedule for November 2000. LG pounds 30m.
Lowry Centre, Salford: pounds 127m arts and leisure centre including Lowry gallery (LG pounds 15.65m). Due to open 28 April 2000.
National Discovery Park, Liverpool: pounds 120m dockside re-development with multi-media centre. Open summer 2001 (LG pounds 22.6m).
Millennium Seed Bank, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: pounds 81m project to collect all British and 10 per cent of world's seeds. pounds 25m to be raised through international cooperation; LG pounds 29.9m.
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff: On target for 26 June opening. Cost: pounds 120m (LG pounds 47m)
National Botanic Garden of Wales: pounds 6m short of pounds 43.6m total. Opens Easter 2000. LG pounds 21.7m
Millennium Cycle Route: pounds 184m (LG pounds 43.5m). 3,500 miles to be completed by summer 2000; 8,000 miles by 2005.Reuse content