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Twenty years ago, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron converted London’s Bankside power station into a gallery. Now they are about to unveil the Switch House – and reinvent how we view art all over again
Jacques Herzog, the more talkative half of the pair of boyhood friends who founded the architectural practice Herzog & De Meuron, is worried about the world. “The things based on the five senses that we like so much, all these values – that we treat people well. They are in danger. There is such a threat around.” He is talking firstly about the threat to European urban civilisation from terrorism, followed some paces behind by his perception that “the middle class is disappearing”. He sees the loss of possibilities of common ground, of cultural experiences shared by different people. In which case Tate Modern, the vastly successful museum in Bankside, south London, might be considered a redoubt of this endangered world.
In 1995, to some bafflement among commentators, Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were appointed architects for what is now called Tate Modern. Who were they? Until that time their best-known works had been signal boxes and facilities for the herbal sweet manufacturer Ricola. Why had this Swiss practice been chosen ahead of Britain’s glittering array of hi-tech modernists, who had been frustrated for years by Margaret Thatcher’s lack of interest in public commissions and Prince Charles’s hostility to contemporary architecture?
Tate had already been criticised for its decision to retain and convert grubby old Bankside power station for use as its new gallery of modern art, rather than commission a sparkling new statement of confidence in the future. It looked like architectural conservation gone mad. Feelings were compounded still further by the fact that, of all the entrants in the competition, Herzog and De Meuron proposed to do the least. Their rather modest drawings seemed to show an art gallery that still looked very much like the power station. It was only when Tate Modern opened, in 2000, that the drama and potential of its enlarged Turbine Hall became apparent.
Now they are back, with the opening next month of their extension to Tate Modern, one of an elite band of globally renowned Pritzker-prize-approved practices and of an even smaller subsection of that band who retain the ability to surprise with their work, who seem still able to invent rather than recycle their greatest hits. […]