Tate Modern chief leads protest against flats plan

One might expect Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, to admire this sort of installation: a giant, gleaming tower of glass, timber and copper, rising 63 metres.

But Sir Nicholas is seething: for the monster is a proposed 20-storey block of flats, and plans are well advanced for it to be built 50 metres from the Tate Modern gallery.

So, far from lauding the project, which will include the most expensive riverside penthouse in the capital, he hit out yesterday at the "private greed" of the developers who want to build the tower on the site of a two-storey Victorian warehouse almost on the museum's forecourt. He promised to investigate legal action to prevent the building.

The building, at 44 Hopton Street, on the bank of the Thames and opposite St Paul's Cathedral, will offer spectacular views to residents, who will pay up to £10m to live there.

Such price tags are partly dependent on the fact that the Tate is next door, says Sir Nicholas. But such an imposing block, so close to the entrance, will intrude on the museum's annual five million visitors.

Vicente Todoli, the Spaniard drafted in this year by Sir Nicholas to run the Tate, said: "It is like building a skyscraper next to the Eiffel Tower."

After a hard-fought planning battle, the company London Town won permission last month to build the apartment block. The proposal had originally been rejected by the local authority, Southwark council. But the developer appealed and gained permission for it after a a public inquiry.

Tony Bingham, the planning inspector who led the inquiry, said the proposed tower "might act as a catalyst for improved design quality for future buildings in the area".

But Sir Nicholas said Mr Bingham "seems unaware of the distinction and quality" of the Tate Modern building, a former power station designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect responsible for Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral and the traditional red telephone box. "In almost any other country in the world, this area would have been kept as a lung within the city rather than being encroached upon and developed for private use," said Sir Nicholas.

Theresa Towle, the spokes-woman for a local residents' group, said the building would plunge people into gloom and make the area "a no-go area for sitting and socialising in".

Sir Nicholas's campaign to stop the development brings him into a head-to-head battle with the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who has given the proposed building his blessing, partly because it will contain nine apartments for poorer residents, classified as affordable housing.

Mr Livingstone believes the tower will complement the existing column on the Tate's own building. "My view is that having another tower there helps to balance it," he said.

Sir Nicholas is also furious at what he says was the developer's attempt to cash in on the museum. "They originally tried to call it the Tate Tower," he said, "until we pointed out that was our name rather than theirs."

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