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Tate Modern set to put Swiss design on the map

It is being hailed as one of the most exciting events in London in the new century. In fact some critics say the new gallery of modern art, a converted power station in a former urban wasteland, even puts the much-hyped Millennium Dome into the shade.

The Tate Modern will be opened by the Queen on Thursday. And in the midst of all the media excitement, it appears that British commentators are unanimous: the Swiss architects, Herzog and de Meuron, have produced a work that, in the words of one critic in "the Independent" newspaper, is "awesome", so much so that it threatens to be "much more impressive than the paintings or sculptures" it houses.

The original Bankside power station was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the man who was also behind Britain's red telephone boxes. It was completed in 1963, but its working life only lasted around 18 years.

It has always been a prominent fixture on London's skyline, with its towering chimney and redbrick facade nestling among the other abandoned buildings of the city's Southwark borough, opposite the skyscapers of the Square Mile over the Thames.

The building itself was nearly demolished ten years ago. But, the Tate director, Nicholas Serota, saw its potential, and after an international search, in 1995 awarded the contract to redesign it to the then unknown Swiss architects, Herzog and de Meuron, perhaps to the annoyance of home-grown contenders such as David Chipperfield.

The Basel-based architects had until that point, mainly worked on industrial or office buildings, including an office block for the Swiss Federal Railways in Basel, and a warehouse near Mulhouse in France for the herbal products manufacturer, Ricola.

Now, at a cost of £134 million, or approximately $205 million dollars, Herzog and de Meuron have re-designed a derelict power station, into a different kind of powerhouse. Nicholas Serota said he chose the Swiss architects because they had promised to transform the building.

However, the two architects have retained the brickwork shell of the building, as well as its chimney. On top of Bankside, they have added a glass roof, the length of the building, to get the maximum amount of natural sunlight into the building.

Critics who have been granted a sneak preview have also raved about the vast hall in the centre of the building, the size of a great cathedral nave, which formerly housed the power station's turbine.

This has been excavated to create a 3,300 square metre space, 33 metres high, to house new installations, the first one by the French-american veteran artist, Louise Bourgeois. However, the original steel columns and brickwork have been retained around the Hall, so the visitor can see the building's own history.

Herzog and de Meuron will not just be credited with the renaissance of the old Bankside. The gallery will also be the first in Britain to display an exhibition of their works, including a large scale-model of the Bankside building at the visitors' entrance, highlighting different points within the building, which the visitor will be encourage to explore.

London's hip lifestyle guide, "Time Out" has described the converted Bankside power station as a "secular cathedral" situated, as it is, opposite Saint Paul's Cathedral across the Thames. It's also been descibed as a "cathedral of cool". The director and architects are hoping this particular place of art-worship will have the power to move at least two million people a year.

by Jamsheda Ahmad


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