What a philistine I am20 July 2001
A fairly friendly reader, antipodean and anonymous, tells me that my critique of abbreviations for contract categories (such as OO for own and operate, BOOT for build, own, operate and transfer) was inadequate.* I did point out a neglect of the dreaded dees - decommission, demolish and decontaminate - but, he writes, I did not mention the possibility of transcendental conversion.
Confessedly a culture vulture, he says how much he enjoyed a holiday in London, England, during which he visited the new Tate Modern art gallery, This much-hymned temple, the biggest of its kind in the world, was opened by no less than the British Queen last year. It shows a bewildering variety of works, including Picasso’s Weeping Woman, Max Ernst’s tragi-comic Elephant Celebes, Juan Muñoz’s vast Double Bind sculpture (described by one art critic as ‘a spatial conundrum, in a metaphorical confrontation between architecture and illusion’) and David Smith’s‡ welded steel sculpture.
New as it undoubtedly is, Tate Modern is in a 1940s building. When that building was constructed, on former swampland, it was as the proud Bankside Power Station, a coal-fired plant designed by an architect esteemed also for a great cathedral and for the red public telephone booths that used to speckle the British scene. Conversion of Bankside to oil-firing in the 1950s gave the station some new life but the vicissitudes of energy economics eventually killed it. Decommissioning began in 1995 after a period of dereliction. The shell had been optioned to the UK’s celebrated Tate art gallery the year before.
The architect of Bankside, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, also had another and older power station to his credit. That one was built in the 1930s at Battersea, likewise by London’s River Thames, and it became a landmark, likewise doomed to eventual dereliction. It, too, may enjoy a new career, but not as a temple of art. Its future could be as a £500m ($US710m) ‘complex’ for wealthy residents and seekers after entertainment. The project was announced last year by a property company. However, cynics recall other development ideas that have been proposed for the site and not followed up.
What does seem almost clear is evidence of a trend in the British capital, if not in the wide world. When the Battersea project was announced, soon after the royal opening of Tate Modern, approving noises were reported from British Energy, a UK-based generating company that runs mostly nuclear plants. Attributed in the press to the company’s Bob Fenton was the remark, ‘Power stations are ideal for artists or developers looking for wide open spaces or industrial-looking venues’. Perhaps significantly, a gas-fired station at Lots Road in London’s Chelsea district has already been converted to residential use.
Who will do best, the artists or the developers? On the side of the artists must be my southern hemispherical correspondent. In his letter he touches appreciatively on hosts of items in Tate Modern. But, to some distress on my part, he does not mention explicitly any work recalling the exquisite specimens that graced Bankside in its former glory. I should have liked to read his account of a ‘sculpture’, stunning in its elegant but deceptive simplicity, captioned Original Bankside steam turbine blade. Nearly as pleasing would have been his allusion to a model showing the internal beauties of a turbine alternator to admirers clustering in the 100m-long 30m-high cavern that was once the power station’s turbine hall.
For all I know, the thought that such works of art should be given token recognition was actually conceived and acted upon, and, if it was, I salute Tate Modern’s begetters for their discernment. Sadly, however, I have seen nothing of the kind reported.
Certainly my aesthetically sensitive reader has not noted anything on those lines. Nor has he commented one way or another on its omission, if made. He prefers to restrict his criticism to my omission of Bankside-style reincarnations from my selection of power station lifecycle acronyms. He suggests that my list should have included something like BOOTSTRAP, meaning build, own, operate, transform station to realise artistic potential. I am sure that, in principle, he is right, though the Bankside–Tate story must have entailed a series of separate contracts.
And is it ungracious of me to observe that, whether in separate contracts or just one, he has still overlooked the dreaded dees? * MPS, August 2000 ‡ There is no connection that I know of here with our former Editor.