Kissing a Grimy Princess

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If ever there was a museum age in Europe and America, it happened in the last half of the 20th century as city after city, nation after nation, set out in pursuit of glory through the accumulation and display of works of art--their own and other people's. One might almost compare it to the sustained religious outpouring, construction as crusading, that covered medieval Europe with its "white mantle" of churches so many centuries ago.

In May a building opened to the London public that may be said to have written a dramatic coda to this narrative of building. It is one of the largest museums ever dedicated to 20th century art, possibly the best in terms of planning and general "feel."

It is not a glass Parthenon, like Mies van der Rohe's National Gallery in Berlin, or an elaborately "timeless" spatial event, like Louis Kahn's Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. It is not an operatic signature building, like Frank Gehry's titanium-sheathed meganautilus in Bilbao, Spain. Still less is it a feat of conspicuously externalized luxury, like Richard Meier's Getty Center, poised in marble aloofness above Los Angeles.

It takes advantage of a site that no one seems to have noticed before: the end of a great imagined axis across the Thames, with Wren's dome of St. Paul's at the opposite end. It is not an effort of heroic originality. It doesn't strut or blow or, like I.M. Pei's Louvre entrance, invoke the Pyramids of Egypt. It is not a rerun of noble history but an adaptation, a conversion job, of something very large but day-to-day.

Welcome to Tate Modern, once a power station built above the bomb wreckage of the blitz by a half-forgotten architect named Giles Gilbert Scott, now rebuilt by the Swiss-based firm of Herzog & De Meuron as London's first museum of modern art.

No proper-thinking modernist architect in the mid-1950s would have given London's Bankside Power Station much chance of making it into the canon of modern architecture. An enormous, darkly lowering hulk of brick, it dominated the south bank of the Thames like a factory, which in fact it was. But more valuable buildings have been lost to economic boom and proactive aesthetics than were ever ruined by decay and indifference. Nobody tore down the Bankside Power Station because none could agree on a use for its site. It just lay there, an unloved, comatose and grimy princess, waiting for someone to kiss it.

Fortunately for it, and for all central London, that person was the director of the Tate Gallery, Sir Nicholas Serota.

The Tate had long had its own problems. It was overstuffed: not enough walls to show the art on, not enough basement to store the submerged nine-tenths of the iceberg in. It was also, to no small degree, schizophrenic: beyond comparison, the greatest historical collection of British art that ever has been or will be assembled, but encased in a jacket of international-modernist works, the two pushing and puffing for wall space in a great city that, unlike New York, Paris, Berlin or almost any other major Western city, still had no "dedicated" museum of modern art. This was a huge Gordian knot in British culture, and Serota--a low-key man of striking tenacity, intelligence and charm--put Alexander's sword to it.

To survive and grow, this collection had to be slashed apart. The history of British art would stay at the old Tate on Millbank. The modern art (European, American but British too) would go elsewhere. And elsewhere would be the unused Bankside Power Station, which proved to have a yawning 133,500 sq. ft. of potential exhibition space but no cultural associations at all. The building became the site for another building. What Herzog & De Meuron did so brilliantly was to respect the merits of Gilbert Scott's disparaged and ignored design, a mere hole in urban-not-muchness, while inserting into it the attributes and functions of a great museum. Their work, and Serota's, was an achievement of Pharaonic tact, and so there is nothing else quite like it among the world's museums.

There was, of course, plenty to respect, starting with the Turbine Hall--a towering nave 115 ft. high and 500 ft. long, an indoor street running the length of the building. This vast space keys the museum but, alas, raises expectations of grandeur that the art cannot always fulfill. It's the Guggenheim problem--the museum as heroic bagel, with the hole in the middle and the art on the rim--but perhaps, some day, sculptural installations will be found worthy of the space. This hasn't happened yet. Tate Modern has started by putting in three monster steel towers by Louise Bourgeois, which, unlike the best of this redoubtable artist's generally smaller work, look inflated and vacuous. One wouldn't want them to stay there, but one wouldn't try to guess what could convincingly replace them either. What's wrong with this picture? Perhaps the rhetorical claim it makes that 20th century sculpture is, was and can be as great, as demanding and deserving of space, as that of other times--ancient Egypt, say, or Baroque Rome. Which, much as we good little modernistas might like to pretend otherwise, is flatly untrue.

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