The moment at which I knew Tate Modern’s new extension Switch House was doing something remarkable was not a moment spent looking at a piece of art – not really. No, I was in a pitch black room wondering where the wall was, and trying not to walk into it.
This statement is likely not to make a lot of sense without some context. The gallery’s new extension is the work of architecture house Herzog & de Meuron, the same minds behind the gallery’s original conversion of Bankside Power Station. They are rightly known as one of the most chameleonic firms in the architectural world: largely devoid of any overt “signature” style, they instead work conceptually, seeking what they deem the relevant materials for each project on a case-by-case basis. This method has led to buildings as diverse as the rock-encased Dominus Winery in the Napa Valley, the glass covered stack of wood and concrete / cuboids and cylinders that form the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford, the mass of thin white columns that miraculously combine to form the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, and the very literally chameleonic (its plastic exterior can completely change colour) Allianz Arena in Munich. When their proposal for the original Bankside redevelopment was chosen by Tate there was uproar – how could a relatively unheard-of Swiss firm, who had only one museum to their name (and at that – a small private collection), and who pledged to change the least, possibly win an international competition which had proposals from the likes of Tadao Ando and David Chipperfield? Yet when Tate Modern finally opened its doors to the public in 2000, letting visitors into the immense, cathedral-like structure of Turbine Hall and the adjoining gallery spaces, the naysayers disappeared.
Switch House is both a return to this vision and a necessary departure from it. In rough harmony with the materiality of the original Boiler House building – its colouration is a little different, and the bricks are arranged in a breezeblock-esque pattern – Switch House is nonetheless an angular, asymmetrical counterpoint to the cuboid symmetry of the power station. It challenges the key assumption (or ideology, depending on how you look at it) that glass is the key component of modern public architecture. Whilst such a view gained traction as a result of the once widely popular International Style and the rise of the Pilkington process for cheaply producing uniform, flat sheets of glass, it can be traced back through the history of the material. Glass has been at the forefront of inventions which have made humanity feel more masterful of the world: the sand-timer, microscope, telescope, touchscreens, Google Glass. Glass has and is constantly seen as the material of the future. Herzog and de Meuron are not afraid to cover their buildings in glass — just look at their spaceship-like building for the Blavatnik School of Government. But Switch House actively works against this conception of glass as the go-to material for public institutions. Indeed, the new building sits across the street from Neo Bankside, the massive glass apartment complex whose inhabitants are like fish in a bowl to anyone on the street below. The resultant juxtaposition is a neat inversion of conceptions of public vs. private, seen vs. unseen. It is almost as if the rising pyramid of Switch House is representative of Herzog & de Meuron raising a finger at Rogers Stirk Harbour and the other architecture houses who unashamedly fetishise glass. Switch House is as much a statement against the modern glass skyscraper (and the 400-plus glass behemoths that are in London’s pipeline) as it is an art gallery.
Yet this statement is very much part of, and integral to, the gallery itself. Windows are few and far between in Switch House, with many of the views out of the building only available through gaps left between bricks – more of an aesthetic statement than a sincere attempt to provide gallery-goers with a view. One’s sight is forced inwards, to focus on the gallery itself. Of course this is exactly how an art gallery should be, and highlights the effectiveness of Herzog & de Meuron’s case-by-case approach to each of their projects. (Conversely, one wonders what the excessive use of glass in the Blavatnik School says about the ways in which the building was envisaged being used.) The dedication to a very limited selection of materials – poured concrete, oak, white tube lights, and not very much else – means that this interiorised view is never distracted by ostentation or ornament. The interior is a shell, allowing one to focus squarely on the artworks exhibited.
But the gallery does not merely demand visitors’ sight. In an unmarked room with no thoroughfare, one stumbles upon coaxing signs that read “Step into a spotlight to see more”, complete with feet marks on the floor denoting where to stand. If one does as asked, a multimedia performance begins on the wall in front of you. Elsewhere, scattered around the gallery are signs emblazoned with the words “PLEASE INTERACT”. In one instance we are told to interact with an artwork and “Make your own small structures using the building blocks.” In another we are told to recline in one of Ricardo Basbaum’s cage-like but cushioned “capsules”. Though less explicit in its demand for audience interaction, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s video installation “Primitive” includes beanbags, with its collection of films shown on seemingly erratically arranged screens. Visitors are forced to make key decisions: which route they take between screens; how long they stay at each one; whether they watch the entirety of each film. We are told that Weerasethakul has not intended for an overarching narrative to the collection, leaving any story-forming up to each visitor. We are made as much an agent of the work as the artist.
But back to the pitch black room. It is situated at the very back of The Tanks, the basement area of the gallery in which Weerasethakul’s installation is also housed. The darkness that envelops the space completely blinds visitors, meaning I was left fumbling slowly forwards, afraid of banging my head on a wall or tripping over something or other. It is a thoroughly disorienting experience, making one intensely aware of one’s body, of one’s physicality. Eventually, one will stumble upon a sensor, and a light will flash on. But it is this moment of anticipation, before the light turns on but not before the installation has started demanding a performance from us, which is key to the work. However enjoyable it is to crisscross in front of the sensors, with lights switching randomly on and off as a result, it is the moment before – that moment of anticipation, fear, disorientation – which really makes one aware of their own body, and of its integral role in the performance. Even more so than climbing into Basbaum’s capsules or choosing our path through Weerasethakul’s installation, the darkness reminds us that we are not just aloof pairs of eyes spectating from afar. That sadly all too common phenomenon of visitors speeding absent-mindedly through a gallery, taking photos of what’s on the walls to look at later, is unlikely to be found at Switch House.
By forcing us to confront our own physicality, Switch House invokes a childlike energy. After all, children love to touch things. Indeed, this energy and enthusiasm seems to take hold not just of visitors, but everyone within the gallery’s walls. As I stood at the edge of Marwan Rechmaoui’s “Beirut Caoutchouc”, a sprawling piece which covers metres of floor, I asked a member of security if we could walk on it. From across the room he warmly smiled, silent. And then, smile still present, he walked slowly up to, and then on to, the artwork.
Originally published in Panoptica magazine, 7 August 2016.