Turbine Hall: A Modern Cathedral That Worships the Power of Arts

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Turbine Hall is the central exhibiting space of Tate Modern Gallery, located on the south bank of the Thames, visible from St. Paul’s Cathedral across the river through Millennium Bridge. It was originally a power house operating between 1947 and 1963, closed in 1981. The Tate company purchased in 1994 to expand the collection space and decided to separate the gallery into Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Redesigned by Swiss Architects Herzog & de Meuron the Power Station transformed into the modern art gallery. The whole gallery is composed with permanent exhibition space (7,830m2 in Boiler House, 22,492m2 in Switch House) and temporary exhibition space at Turbine Hall (3,300 m2). The total costs were £349 million, initial development of £134 million and £215 million from extension project. Tate modern have received more than 60 million visitors since opening in 2000.

Unlike Guggenheim in Bilbao, which opened around same time, was constructed with a brand new purpose-built structure; The Turbine Hall was converted from a former Bankside Power Station, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880–1960). Originally the structure of the hall was not vast and empty but full with industrial machinery. “[M]any people think: ‘what have they actually done?’. Because they don’t know that actually there was nothing there - it was full up with machinery. A large part of our work consisted in clearing up [...]. And then we actually invented the building as a museum. But this invention of the building always kept close to what was actually there.” Herzog and de Meuron aimed for a level of simplicity and originality and the space itself is a total work of art and craftsmanship. They preserved most of the existing conditions. By restoring the steel piers and repainting with dark charcoal grey, the spatial generosity of the hall was further enhanced. “It takes maximal profit from the existing building structure. New materials – mainly glass walls – will contrast but not break up the compactness of the brick masonry.”

The Turbine Hall lies longitudinally from east to west. Once accessed from the West Entrance the atmosphere and background acoustics changed immediately. The space is surprisingly vast in its size and is almost symmetrical about the axis. Glazing glasses enable light accessed from the ceiling, supported by structural steel cross-bracings. Noticeably, four large lighted rectangular rooms are hanged and attached on the north side with restored steel piers, painted in dark charcoal grey, large size windows enable other visitors to look downwards. This design provides an unexpected experience of such spatial generosity, the “grey universe”, in which, well contrasted with the sensation of being observed above when accessed to the space. This positive vertical movement brings a great sense of pleasure to the public architecture.

The gradual downward slope of the ramp further enhanced this ascending and descending movement, in which, engaged more bodily movements to the space. Amongst the well-lighted days, children are excited by this unexpected opportunity and the mood suddenly switch into a playful and uncontrolled, like outdoor playgrounds. Various bodily movements and interactions seemed perfectly acceptable on the slope, sliding, sitting, drawing, reading, lying to appreciate the vastness and emptiness of the space. The comfort voices well mixed with the lively conversation of people that brings a unique sound-scape. This fact indicates that visitors considered themselves as an important component of such gigantic space, and to them, this great spatial volume seems to be welcoming and comfortable, not overheard. However, this sense of playfulness changes abruptly with the spatial quality. At the bottom of the ramp located at the centre of Turbine Hall, material changed from modern concrete and grey polished floor to a settle aged concrete, with corrosion of steel all over the surface. It brings a sense of heaviness to the atmosphere: this is where the exhibition of the floor starts, artworks are solemn.

The spatial generosity of Turbine Hall may only be compared and contrasted with the volume of religious public structures. Regarding to the site context, St. Paul Cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren, located on the opposite side of the river, he aimed to build the dome in a way that presents the ultimate power of Christianity and symbolic for the presence of the God. However, later when building blocks adjacent were constructed, St. Paul seemed to be submerged and overwhelmed by its surroundings. In contrary, public squares, green areas around Tate Modern enables it to be observed easily from distance. Also, it was established right next to River Thames, allows it to be exposed to the London landscape.

Speaking of the internal space, the interior of St Paul’s Cathedral (including the large dome) occupies a volume of 152,000m3 , which counterparts the volume of Turbine Hall of 125,00m3 (to 3 significant figures), giving the statistics of length 155m, width 23m and height 35m . However, according to the experience of myself and peers, the volume of Turbine Hall (described as gigantic) appears significantly larger than that of St Paul’s Cathedral (described as big). This unexpected distinct experience can be explicated through the discourse by French Architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799), who was deeply fascinated by the effect of grand space. He wrote: Consider the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London [...] Why then does St. Peter’s in Rome appear much smaller than it is? This intolerable defect is due to the fact that the Architect has not given an impression of space by the mere presence of the numerous objects a large space should naturally contain but instead has reduced the overall effect by making each object of colossal proportions; Structural components with ‘colossal proportions’ in Cathedrals - such as massive vertical piers and columns – appear to be much smaller than they really are. This is due to a lack of ‘an impression of space’, coined by Boullée. The space is filled with colossal proportion and leaved insufficient empty space. According to Boullée, instead of the mass, what makes a space impressively gigantic is its emptiness. ‘It must appear large and superior, and its immensity must have a power over our senses that even assuming that it is repulsive, it still arouses our admiration’ . Similar to the design of pointed arches, lined columns and piers in Gothic Churches, Turbine Hall restored slim steel bars and simplified the overall structural to enhance a sense of verticality, thus increase the height of the space perceptually. So how does the space influenced the field of modern art? This grand volume became an experimental laboratory for modern artists to exanimate their works behave in such scale of emptiness. After receiving a noticeable substantial sponsorship, the series project ‘Unilever’ has commissioned annually from 2000, accommodating the grand space of Turbine Hall.

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The weather project utilized the emptiness of the space, instead of building a gigantic piece of sculpture like the biggest spider ever commissioned by Bourgeois, Eliasson filled the void of nothing with ‘sun’ light and fine mists. He doubled the space through the use of enormous mirror that covers the ceiling, the mists give the quality of cloudy morning. The unpredictable dynamic quality imitates the immense power of nature, that despite the advanced civilization of human still behave primitive and uncontrollable. The space became retrospective and infectious – arts dominates the void and visitors, became a part of the installation. Eliasson turned it into a church that worships the power of nature, a monument of earth. This can barely work without the spatial generosity of the hall.

The installation ‘Marsyas’ by Anish Kapoor, another Unilever Series which successfully accommodates the enormous volume of the space by scaling the work up to a similar size, whilst controlling the ‘colossal proportions’. A balance is achieved between solidness and emptiness, that neither the space becomes overwhelming nor the sculpture being swallowed by the void. The space ultimately switched the conception of arts from a pure sculpture which could be placed almost anywhere in the world, to a ‘site-specificity’ sculptural construction that integrates with the immense void of the Hall.

As described above, people behave freely and interact lively both bodily and linguistically under this vast space, like lying on the green space of Regent’s Park or chatting in the public square. The space therefore became a multifunctional space as it not only serves the purpose of exhibiting large artworks, but also provides a socialise centre for the residents and visitors. As indicated in the article by Jin Baek and Yoon-Jeong Shin, Turbine Hall does not merely act as a spatial container for modern artworks or a public architecture, but as a form of landscape. Due to its enormous scale, it can be categorized as a piece of architecture and a landscape mutually. The Unliever Series (Especially the weather project and Shibboleth) indicates, however, the space implicitly stimulates the natural entities with its components. The floor of concrete is symbolic for the heaviness of the earth, where the ramp leads to a world of underground, the cracks by Doris Salcedo stand for the condition of earthquake. The transparency of the ceiling reveals the sky, the ‘sun’ in the weather project, which leads visitors to lie down voluntarily and to enjoy the sunshine and the moisture stimulated through the smoke. Undoubtedly, the space itself is highly distinctive to the nature. Rather, this is a utopian ideology that abstracts the quintessential qualities of the nature.

Is it possible for a space to be small in scale and sublime simultaneously? Slovak artist Roman Ondák (born 1966) intended to tackle this question by scaling down the size of Turbine Hall into a tenth of it and produced minimised version. He then located the model in a corner of the actual Turbine Hall. Through this approach, this enables visitors to experience constantly between a world of Gulliver and Lilliput. It has been clarified that, the former remains the experience of overwhelmed by the vastness of the space, and therefore achieve a pleasurable balance between fear and sublime; whereas the latter was considered rather dedicated and beautiful in its details, even claustrophobic. This situation, however, can be explained through Immanuel Kant’s theory of sublime and beauty, the German word ‘Erhabenhet’’, he wrote:

“The sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peaks arise above the clouds, the description of a raging storm, or the depiction of the kingdom of hell by Milton arouses satisfaction, but with dread; […] For the former to make its impression on us in its proper strength, we must have a feeling of the sublime[.] ” In order to reach the state of Erhabenhet, an object has to fulfil the dual emotional quality of fear and attraction from a safe distance that transforms the dreadful fear into a pleasurable experience. Turbine Hall exactly replicates this situation, it turned a feeling of insignificant, intimidated and being overwhelmed into a positive appreciation to the space.

The shrink version of Turbine Hall constructed by Roman was not attractive and admired by the public but rather considered adorable, due to a lack of ‘an impression of space’. In religious architecture, this principle of size shares the similarities – the hierarchy indicates the bigness of the space and reflects its religious status. When people visit cathedral-sized place of worship – Sagrada Familia for instance, commonly visitors are attracted to the immensity of the void. People acknowledges their condition of infinitesimal, insignificant, similar reaction happens when present to a violate storm. The spatial generosity causes a perception of infinite and unexplainable, therefore leads visitors to believe in the ultimate power of the divinity and the presence of the God. Apart from the physical size of the space, the simplicity of the form also contributes to this feeling of vastness. Unlike the excessive ornaments decorated in St. Paul Cathedral, Sagrada Familia keeps the form simplistic, in which effectively heightens the internal space perceptually. Turbine Hall was designed under the same principle. The idea can be confirmed with Kant’s theory of sublime: ‘The sublime must always be large, the beautiful can also be small. The sublime must be simple, the beautiful can be decorated and ornamented. ’

However, the vastness of the space became problematic in terms of its circulation and spatial efficiency. As the central space for the Tate Modern, Turbine Hall did not connect the adjacent spaces such as the new extension of switch house and viewing platform effectively. Access from the main entrance from west, the ramp almost occupies the entire floor plan of Turbine Hall, in which naturally guides the visitors to walk downward. However, when visitors reach the very bottom of the ramp, they realized that the main collection areas are located from second to fourth floor on the right-hand side (Boiler House) and from second to fifth floor on the left-hand side (Switch House). This can be a daunting experience especially when they have spent time on the downward journey. The vertical spatial separation reduced the likelihood of access to the tower and viewing platform. People can rarely realise the presence of platforms on both buildings without seeking the guidance, since the member bar and staff only floors isolates the direct access from main collection storages to platforms. Horizontally, Turbine Hall eliminated all major connection between two houses. Once visitors have chosen a house from ground, it is unlikely for them to found out the only connection between two houses elevated from the ground, which is located on the rare side of 4th floor. This is understandable lying on the fact that the whole design of Turbine Hall, Boiler House and Switch House were largely based on the existing spatial arrangement of the previous power station.

To conclude, Tate Modern is not only a well-functioning art gallery but a culturally and socially prosperous centre. Through the design based on the principle of ‘colossal proportion’ and the spatial generosity, Turbine Hall visually and perceptually dominates visitors, bringing feelings of admirable and sublime that commonly happens in cathedrals or temple. Turbine Hall also turned the traditional exhibition space of surrounding visit to a space that enables visitor to immerse with the emotion and atmosphere brought by the artwork. This unexpected experience of artworks and space could be both retrospective and educational to visitors. The qualities discussed above enables Turbine Hall to become not simply an Art gallery, but also a landscape, a utopia with rich artistic and social value, a modern cathedral that worships the power of arts.

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