Tate Modern Switch House: a New Perspective on London

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High rise developments are often exclusive private spaces, as attested by the current glut of luxury flats, hotels and offices rising across Inner London. Even recent developments advertising their public space credentials have come up short, with for example the Shard’s fantastic views costing £25 entry fee, or the Walkie-Talkie’s ‘skygarden’ amounting to an expensive restaurant and some pot plants.

It’s wonderfully refreshing therefore that London’s newest tower is dedicated to public space. Tate Modern’s Switch House extension includes free galleries, spaces for contemplation and discussion, and one of the most spectacular 360 degree viewing locations in London. It all adds up to a big improvement to what was already a very successful gallery.

The Switch House exterior sits right next to brightly coloured flats and office developments. Architects Herzog and de Meuron have opted for a bold angular form that holds its own in this contested space, while still complementing the original Bankside power station through the use of a brickwork lattice.

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The gallery floors are spacious, with the exhibits focusing less on blockbuster artists, and more on international voices, sculpture and performance. For example the Living Cities gallery features works from the Middle East and Africa. The winding nature of the tower staircases also creates many intimate and relaxing spaces, which contrasts nicely with the busier open galleries next to the turbine hall.

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The viewing gallery presents a superb panorama over the City, St Paul’s, East and South London. It’s an amazing perspective, and quite unique compared to other skyline views, particularly with Bankside tower looming just in front, and no glass barriers present. Thew view westwards is more obscured from developments around Blackfriars, but is still fascinating.

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Here’s how the the new tower links with the existing galleries in the internal plan. There’s even a bridge across the turbine hall. High-res versions of these photos are on flickr.

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Sponsored Space

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Cities have always been the great spaces of commerce, trade and advertising; and recent decades have seen the corporate realm expand with the privatisation of services such as transport and utilities. Arguably corporate ownership is currently taking a new aspect with the explicit branding of urban places. English football clubs now play at the Emirates, Etihad and Sports Division Arena, rather than at Highbury, City of Manchester and St James’s Park stadiums. Skyscrapers in Canary Wharf project gigantic banking logos across East London. Westfield super-malls have branded entire new urban districts of streets and squares.

This process is not new- corporations have been building places to express their brands for a long time. Disneyland is perhaps the most famous example, and arguably the original UK new towns like Cadbury’s Bournville shared some of the same ideals. Many useful projects would simply not happen without corporate sponsorship, such as the popular (but loss-making)  Barclays Cycle Hire scheme in London, soon to be mimicked with Citi-Bike in New York.

The question however is whether this process represents a ‘slippery slope’ towards a comprehensive corporate branding of urban space. There has been much recent debate in London over the mayor’s decision to develop a cable car project across the Thames at the O2 Arena (another corporate venue). The project is sponsored by Emirates airlines and their name will be attached to two public transport stations, including appearing on London’s classic public transport map for a period of ten years.

The impact is fairly minor, though it does mean London is now in the dubious company of Dubai and Las Vegas in allowing sponsorship of subway stations. It did get me thinking, what would happen if London let rip and allowed the full sponsorship of the public transport network? My guess at the resulting network for London of businesses naming districts where they locate is below.

Obviously this map is satirical and would never actually be allowed to happen. I would argue though that this map does in its own way represent a real geography of corporations and capital flows in London. Is this map a more functionally honest representation of contemporary London than traditional images?