There is no groovier vocation these days than that of the young British artist. It's not just that one's every artistic exploit is broadcast by a reactionary press, giving one the status of a naughty rock star. And it's not just that one can, on the strength of that notoriety, open a profitable business like Pharmacy, the restaurant owned by Damien Hirst, known for his work with polka dots and animals in formaldehyde.
What makes the occupation especially sweet is that as of this week, one has a supersize, super-hyped gallery of sufficient wattage to house one's work: the former Bankside power station, which for almost 20 years provided electricity for London, and will for the foreseeable future provide heat for its art and tourist scene. The Tate Modern, as the new gallery is known, is the brainchild of Nicholas Serota, director of Britain's venerable Tate galleries. And it's the adopted child and most high-profile work to date of the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & De Meuron.
It's their adopted child because most of the work on this baby was done in 1947 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the original architect. As power stations go, Bankside was a looker, which is to say that it's a hulking lunker of a building with a tapering chimney that doesn't so much echo the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral on the opposite side of the river as mock it. Nevertheless it has a happy squat symmetry, enhanced by groups of narrow windows that stripe nearly the entire height of the building. It also has size, which modern art loves. And its sooty past is apposite. Y.B.A.S. (as young British artists are known) have been showing and creating their works in abandoned warehouses and factories for years, as have young artists everywhere. "We were very conscious of the way artists work when we chose this building," says Serota. "We did a survey of artists and asked where they liked to see their work. Some liked converted industrial buildings. Some liked the top-lighted galleries of the turn of the 19th century. But almost none of them liked the purpose-built galleries of the '50s, '60s and '70s." (Take that, Guggenheim.)
Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Harry Gugger and Christine Binswanger, who share credit for the design, were smart enough not to mess too much with the building. "Sir Giles Scott created a monument," says Gugger. "We wanted to blur the boundaries of the monument, to turn it into open space." Blur is the right word. It's a gentle transformation of a giant. The most astonishing thing about it may be that a looming, great, scary industrial complex could become something so polite.
Just as the power station had three sections — one for the boilers, one for the turbines and one for the transformers — the Tate Modern has three divisions as well. Where the boilers were are now seven floors of museum, including 84 gallery spaces. The huge turbine hall is the gem: it has been transformed into a 35-m-high entrance hall, where visitors walk down a 23-m-wide ramp and encounter three enormous Louise Bourgeois towers, I Do, I Undo and I Re-do, comprising rusting spiral staircases and convex mirrors. On a bridge overhead is her gargantuan spider, Maman. All were commissioned for this space. The third section still houses transformers and switches that hum like a site-specific sound installation. A perfect, friendly backdrop for the down-and-dirty exploits of modern art.
The most striking addition was a two-story light box that the architects perched atop the building. This brings natural illumination into the upper galleries and, from the cafe housed within, offers a postcard view of the other, more scenic side of the Thames. It also reflects the electric heritage of the building and adds a light touch to the brooding mass beneath.
The galleries will make the artists happy. They are plain, well-lit boxes, with floors of unsanded white oak or polished concrete. There's not a remarkable thing about them, which means it will be easier for the unusual artistic conjunctions the Tate has conjured to jump forward. The art, all post-1900, is organized by subject rather than chronologically. There will be nudes, still-life, landscape and history painting. Thus Richard Long's work Red Slate Circle (1988) is exhibited below Monet's Water-Lilies (after 1916). Pieces by two artists, working at different ends of the century with the idea of pools, housed in a gallery made by two architectural minds half a century apart, working with the idea of power. Who knew that modern art could be so tidy?