Making a mess of the Tate Modern extension

Herzog and de Meuron's 'pile of boxes' design for the art gallery's new wing shows that architecture is embracing chaos over order.

Karl Sharro

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At the end of last month, the Tate Modern art gallery in London revealed its plans for a new extension, designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, who converted the disused power station on London’s South Bank into the Tate Modern in the first place in 2000. The two architects have described their new design as a ‘pile’ of boxes, while others have likened it to a ziggurat or a pyramid. I don’t often find myself agreeing with other architects on the proper description of their buildings, but I must say that ‘pile’ is indeed what comes closest to describing the proposed extension.

While I am all in favour of designers’ creative freedom, I think the current trend of formal ‘messiness’ in architecture has become too recurrent to be considered a whimsical act by individual architects. Instead, it speaks more of how architects today see themselves and their profession. More importantly, it expresses how architecture is now part of the general unwillingness today to impose order on the world. This attitude – which manifests itself in the abandonment of meta-theories in the social sciences and in the shift toward ‘localised’ resistances in politics – is finding its expression in architecture through the embracement of ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder’.

The link between developments in architecture and in the social sciences is certainly not arbitrary. Deconstruction was all the rage in architectural circles in the 1980s, particularly in the US, where architects embraced the theories of French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s anti-Enlightenment stance seemed to liberate architects from the social agendas that Modernism had pursued. Derrida’s denial of the possibility of progress resonated with a generation of architects who were disillusioned with Modernism, but also discontented with the historicism that was making its way back into architecture. Deconstruction opened up the possibility of an architecture that could be formally completely new, and it liberated architects from the demands of Modernism.

Nevertheless, the work of architects like Peter Eisenman was invigorated by Derridian concepts, and it can be argued that it was still intellectually rigorous, despite its shedding of the aspirations of Modernism. Eisenman used Derrida’s concept of the ‘spectral’ to propose that a site cannot be seen as a tabula rasa, as the Modernists chose to view it, but rather contains traces of its past that can be integrated into the architecture. In several of his projects, Eisenman employed these historical references to create multi-layered formal compositions that were visually and spatially exciting. In this process the architect still controlled the formal relationships that made up the architecture, and could choose which aspects of the site’s history should be emphasised and translated into formal influences.

In contrast, the formal tendencies that are prevalent today seem to be a result of the architect relinquishing control and making do without any organisational principles governing the design. Herzog and de Meuron’s Tate Modern extension is a clear example of this tendency; their description of the project as a ‘pile of boxes’ declares their abandonment of any formal principles whatsoever. There isn’t even a trace of the intellectual pretensions that characterised Eisenman’s work. The architects in this sense merely become ‘technical enablers’ who are able to realise a random composition in the concrete.

What I find interesting about the use of the term ‘pile’, and about the images that have been released of the scheme so far, is how potentially malleable this project will be. The pile can be rearranged in many different ways, and it would be very difficult for anyone to spot the differences between the possible compositions. In other words, the ‘pile’ does not have any clear organisational principle, or as someone like Eisenman would put it, it doesn’t have a ‘narrative’.

I, myself, am tempted to use a word that is highly unfashionable in architecture circles today: integrity. Herzog and de Meuron’s pile lacks any sense of integrity, a quality that allows the architect to control the transition of the project from idea to execution while retaining the original intentions. Instead, the pile will be open to compromises in response to different demands, and there will be numerous demands on a high-profile public project like this one, ranging from community participation to environmental considerations.

What is particularly troubling about the Tate Modern extension is that it is not a one-off example of this new approach to architecture, which is, in fact, becoming the norm. Even at the height of Modernism some pretty atrocious buildings were built, but that fits perfectly well with the experimental nature of the Modernist project – you can’t expect architects to get it right all the time. In contrast, today’s haphazard formal approach is becoming pervasive, finding its way into architecture schools where the very nature of architectural education itself is being transformed as a result of the abandonment of objective criteria of assessing projects.

Some would argue that this form of freedom of expression contributes to more exciting possibilities in architecture, but this argument can only work if architecture is considered an art form. In reality, architecture is a far more complex proposition that has to respond to a variety of considerations, including programmatic requirements and construction technologies. Far more complex to teach, and to agree upon, are the spatial and architectonic aspects of architecture, aspects which different societies and different periods find varying responses to. The response today seems to be that our incapability of making sense of the apparent complexity of the world should be reflected in architecture.

There will no doubt be those who will criticise the Tate Modern extension for precisely the opposite reasons that I am criticising it for. No doubt some will criticise the scheme as a manifestation of the ‘ego’ of the architects, and others will decry its ‘heroic’ nature. These two charges have become standard accusations against any architectural project that seeks to be distinctive. But these critiques will entirely miss the point about the Tate Modern scheme.

Rather than being heroic and egotistical, the project is a mundane exercise in self-effacement. What Herzog and de Meuron seem to be saying with their pile of boxes analogy is that the idea is so simple that even a child playing with some wood blocks could have come up with a similar composition. Again, this idea would not have been so troubling had it not been symptomatic of how architects see their place in society today. In participating in the general retreat from imposing order on the world, architects are relinquishing the transformative powers of architecture in favour of expressing the ‘messiness’ of the world through their designs.

Karl Sharro is an architect and urbanist. He practiced architecture in London and Beirut and taught at the American University of Beirut. He’s working on the forthcoming ‘Whatever Happened to Visionary Architecture?’ which he intends to be more of a manifesto than a eulogy. Visit the ‘Transforming Tate Modern’ website here.

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