A bored fly on the wall at the Tate Modern

Power into Art
May 12, 2000

Power into Art is published to accompany a four-part Channel 4 series, Power into Art: The Battle for the New Tate Gallery . Both tell the inside story of how the massive Gilbert Scott power station at Bankside was converted by a small but fashionable Swiss architectural practice into a new museum.

It is difficult for me not to project back into the bigger story of art and architecture in order to find the book a shelf partner. Could it, for example, be the chapter in Vasari's Lives of the Artists that deals with the construction of the Duomo in Florence? Or was it Christopher Hobhouse's account of the construction of the Crystal Palace? But both are so much more interesting; the subject matter and treatment of this book emerge as drab. I asked myself why should such a promising theme falter? Could it be because the Bankside project was a refurbishment and not a new building? Were we too close in time to it? Was the all-important human element simply too grey? I concluded that both the earlier stories of construction, in spite of being bureaucratic marathons, became interesting because of the skill in the telling.

Here, it is not so much the subject that is problematic, but the treatment. If you are interested in DIY or are an architectural historian you may find riveting the endless references to fittings and brackets, cast-iron grills, Polyfilla, faulty staircases, labour problems and asbestos in the roof space. But if you are an art lover and, like me, were led by the title to believe this book may have something to do with art, forget it. Some teachers and students of architecture will enjoy the author's blow-by-blow, fly-on-the-wall account of a nightmare mixture of trustees, fundraising, planning permissions, contractors and architects. But the broader readership of this book is yet to be born. A century from now, an audience may emerge that will be interested to look back and enjoy the detail of the story as a small part of the bigger social history of the millennium. Today, we can only speculate on its future worth.

This will hinge on how the reputations of the major players grow or shrink with time and not the undoubted importance of the Tate as an institution. Will the architect Jacques Herzog be remembered as the Filippo Brunelleschi of his time? Will the Tate's director Sir Nicholas Serota be remembered as a suitably grand Medici? Is Ricky Burdett, described by the author as an "architectural guru", our 21st-century Vasari? Only then, I would argue, when the readers have this kind of detail in hand, will they be in a position to judge if the hundreds of seemingly pointless quotes that pepper this book serve a greater purpose than adding a spurious veracity to what seems to be nothing more than an executive soap opera.

I have no reason to doubt that the book paints an accurate picture, but it reads like a documentary where quotes substitute for ideas and famous names for content. Let me give you a taste of one of the more interesting dialogues from part one of the book. Herzog and Christine Binswanger, both partners of Herzog and de Meuron, enter, but as little more than the subjects under discussion, and Burdett plays the lead. It is the early days of the commission, London, 1995. The "cast" discuss the possibility that the halos over the heads of their architects may put them in a position where they are invited to take on other projects that may result in the "dilution" of their work at Bankside.

Burdett (to Herzog): "You were excluded from a project yesterday in Stuttgart because you were too busy with the Tate."

Burdett again (to Serota): "Daimler-Benz wanted them to build a tiny little museum."

Binswanger: "Oh, come on, Ricky, you're kidding."

Burdett: "That was part of the discussion."

Serota: "You agreed?" Burdett: "Absolutely, we can't have them playing around."

Such is the world behind the construction of a world-class museum.

Published on the eve of the opening of the Tate Modern and as the champagne corks are still popping at Tate Britain, this book should probably be purchased by specialist libraries as it may have a future life. In the short term it will probably do best on its home territories. I shall put my money on Serota's diaries.

Stephen Farthing is the Ruskin master of drawing, University of Oxford.

Power into Art: Creating Tate Modern, Bankside

Author - Karl Sabbagh
ISBN - 0 713 99280 0
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 332

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