There were upwards of 4,000 people in the building last night, they say, agog to see what it was that had cost £260m. It’s called the Switch House and it’s opening today, signalling, says Nick Serota, “a new era for modern and contemporary art in the UK”.
It is an extraordinary structure, not just the old switch house on the back of the boiler house that comprised Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1950s power station that formed the original Tate Modern which opened 16 years ago, but also the twisted tower Herzog de Meuron have devised to grow out of the old pile, imposing itself on the Bankside cultural quarter that it now presides over.
But inside – where’s the art? It’s here, I’ve got a list that tells me so, but elusive. There are ten floors in this rather austere confection. At level one is a shop; levels two, three and four are gallery spaces, but level five is called Tate Exchange, level six is for education, level seven offices, level eight the members’ space, level 9 a restaurant and level 10, where everybody who could find a lift with space flocked to first, was the viewing platform of the biggest exhibit of all, the Christmas tree sparkler of Thames-side. Given the loaded elevators, the best way up and down was via the stairs whose solemn grey cement walls brought one lady to wonder why they hadn’t tried borrowing a few McKnight-Kauffer Tube posters from the London Transport Museum to brighten the journey up and down.
The point is, however, that this was a party, not even a private view where the art is at least the ostensible reason for being here. The throng made it almost impossible to find the installations, many of which are pretty self-effacing in normal times. Today, with the art back in control, the building serves its purpose as a box for what will be unfamiliar art for many of us, moving things, noisy things, filmed things, performed things, arts that sees no artform boundaries any more. And that is Serota’s point. Among these 4,000 are luminaries from the West End, here perhaps to see what it might mean to their operations – Andrew Lloyd Webber with his daughter, Cameron Mackintosh’s presence on earth Nick Allott, Nick Hytner, because this is a building no-one has ever seen before that is not an art gallery, not a theatre, not a concert hall but all of these things.
Frances Morris, the new Tate Modern director who has been working on this phenomenon for at least 16 years, says the Switch House is broadening the Tate’s international remit. Well, it always had that, but what we are beginning to discover is that in contemporary art anything can happen. The thing is, now it can happen here, and it’s free.