Looking out from the top of Tate Modern’s extension towards the cluster of skyscrapers across the Thames, it is hard not to feel that you have left Austerity Britain behind.
It is not just the view that instils this sense of detachment from reality. Eight years after the crash, new public buildings remain few and far between in this country. The new Tate Modern, which opens next month, may only be an extension but, at £260 million, its budget dwarfs that of every arts building realised in Britain this century.
If the project feels like it belongs to another era, that is because its history dates back over a decade. When Tate Modern opened in 2000, a substantial part of the former Bankside Power Station remained in use as an electricity switch house. Soon after, UK Power Network agreed to contract its operations, opening up the possibility that the gallery might build an extension on the south side of the Turbine Hall.
At the same time, visitor numbers were proving more than twice those anticipated, consistently reaching levels of more than 5 million per year. Tate’s trustees had not envisaged an expansion for at least a couple of decades, but now fast-tracked the project, with the goal of completing it for the 2012 Olympics. […]