The new Tate Modern: a giant pyramid devoted to progressive art work

Story highlights

  • London's Tate Modern has opened their new extension - the Switch House
  • Designed by Herzog and de Meuron, the ten-storey brick building resembles a pyramid
  • Director Frances Morris is pioneering a focus on female and international artists

(CNN)Tate Modern's brand new extension, the Switch House is a brooding brick fortress -- a modern twist on the pyramid -- rearing up amongst gleaming apartment blocks at the back of the old converted power station on London's South Bank.

Tate Modern with new extension
The new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, standing in one of the galleries, is ebullient -- "London is the art capital of the world and Tate Modern is our crown jewel."
    With the Switch House, the capital city re-asserts its pre-eminence. Property developers have seized the moment with penthouse apartments by Tate Modern starting at $8 million.
    Contemporary art has changed dramatically in the last twenty-five years or so. The slogan is writ large and high on the riverside facade -- "Art Changes, We change".

    More space for people and art

    The original building by the Thames was unmistakeably a power station -- a forgotten postwar relic until the Swiss Architects, Herzog & de Meuron converted it into a cathedral for art in 2000. They kept the industrial fabric and some of the names; the Boiler House and the Turbine Hall.
    As overall Director of Tate galleries, Sir Nicholas Serota had expected just 2 million visitors. Free to entry, they got 5 million; with the Switch House opening, they expect that to rise to 6 million.
    "We need more space for people and more space to show new forms of art. Art has become more participative, in the sense of grabbing hold of the viewer and embracing them," he explains.
    Serota has quietly but firmly overseen all things Tate since 1988. Right from 2000, he had plans to extend Tate Modern. The circular oil tanks in the basement, for example, were obviously potential art spaces. Now they are.
    According to Frances Morris, Tate Modern's new Director, they were "a gift to the art world -- fantastic, raw, found -- you could never make a space like that."

    The focus of the Switch House

    On press day, international journalists and performance artists intermingled. A troupe of Romanian dancers "acted out" famous works of art. I caught a few names -- Malevich, Koons, Baldessari. One performer came up and muttered into my face, 'Coca-Cola, molotov cocktail'" and quickly moved on.
    The Switch House is committed to performance art. There will be a regular program and a designated curator, Catherine Wood. Great art is supposed to endure. Isn't this all a bit ephemeral? "No," -- she assures me -- "this is art that can linger in the memory. Also some performance art, from the 1960s onwards, has been archived on film and video -- and so should last."
    Painting doesn't feature much in Switch House. To see Picasso, Mondrian, Richter et al, you will have to visit the original building across the Turbine Hall.
    The Switch House is a citadel of ten storeys, rising to a viewing platform and a stunning panorama of St Paul's (the other, less-visited cathedral), the Shard and the City of London. The first visitors were so excited that they couldn't resist cheerily waving down to us from the balcony. Tate Modern's exhibition space has increased by some 60% but many of the new galleries are purposefully intimate.

    Frances Morris at the helm

    The impact of Frances Morris's appointment as the gallery's first female director is obvious. Just like Serota, she went to Cambridge University and London's Courtauld Institute of Art. She also joined the Tate in the year he became director.
    On opening day for the Switch House, she was having the time of her life, showing us around with an easy laugh and a gleam in her eye. She was still pinching herself -- still not quite understanding why her predecessor (the Belgian, Chris Dercon) decided to step down last year so close to the new opening.
    For her, "it felt like Christmas Day" but without any disappointing presents. Every box opened was a winner -- "an experience of deep pleasure and the knowledge is that in this box is a kit that we can go on exploring for a very long time."
    Frances Morris is an art revolutionary. She has a clarity of vision. It was she who led the way in re-hanging Tate Modern's collection thematically, rather than historically.
    Other international galleries have followed suit. She has long championed the cause of female artists. Now she has the power to address the gender imbalance.
    In the Switch House, Louise Bourgeois, who died in 2010, has been given a room to herself with her big spider sculptures, hanging human forms and unsettling cabinets of curiosities.
    A work by the neglected Italian sculptor, Marisa Merz, now in her mid-80s, is prominently displayed in a room of installations on another floor. Frances Morris believes too many great woman artists have been overlooked. Now they are getting the attention they richly deserve.

    Collecting art internationally

    There is also an absolute commitment -- on both Morris and Serota's part -- to collect internationally in a way that the Tate didn't until the millennium. Artists from Latin America, Africa, and indeed lesser known artistic parts of Europe like Romania -- artists are now globally connected. The story is no longer just about Paris, London and New York and hasn't been for some time.
    Nick Serota's achievement at Tate has been indisputably considerable. He turned 70 in April and he shows no evident signs of slowing down although perhaps there are hints that he's more prepared to delegate than he was before.
    We talked standing on the bridge in the vastness of the Turbine Hall -- the breathtaking industrial space straddling the Boiler House and the Switch House.
    Tree, 2010, Ai Weiwei
    This is where some of the Tate Modern's most memorable pieces have been realized -- Louise Bourgeois's spider sculpture, 'Maman' in 2000, Olafur Eliasson's giant sun, 'The Weather Project' in 2003 and Carsten Holler's slide, 'Test Site' in 2006 -- all huge art works created respectively by a French American, a Danish Icelander and a Belgian.
    A new Tate acquisition, 'Tree' by the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei stood behind us on the bridge. It's made up of pieces of ancient wood, bolted together. I asked Nick Serota about it -- and for a fleeting moment, his scholarly directorial reserve was forgotten.
    "It's a great sculptural object," he said, hand on heart. "It connects me with the earth. It connects me with Nature. It reminds me of how short lived I am. It does all these things. It's a beautiful piece."