Let’s start with some stats, which is a bit more difficult to say than write, which will give you an idea of the scale of the oil tanks we are now working on.
Eight metres high ( just over 26 feet) and built to hold one million gallons of oil each these magnificent tanks played an important role, in the 1950s and 60s, ensuring Londoners had warmth, light and well lit streets. During the 1970s increasing oil prices (the OPEC crisis) resulted in the power station being decommissioned in 1981. From then on Bankside remained an operational switch station for (transferring not producing) electricity in London. The tanks however were closed, their steel linings stripped away for scrap and then left hidden beneath the southern lawn with an uncertain future.
From January of this year the remergence of these amazing spaces has begun with a process which will hopefully bring (albeit in a different way) warmth and illumination to Londoners and visitors from all over the world. Firstly we have gradually removed the roofs exposing the tanks to the open air. The team then set to work on the restoration and mechanics of preparing the spaces for their future hosting contemporary art and performance. Alongside this the delicate process has begun of creating the foundations for the new building which will rise from and around the tanks.
Sandy Good is in charge of the transformation of Tate Modern on site operation being carried out by MACE Ltd. A “can do” Scotsman who has worked in the construction industry for seven years he is enthusiastic and pragmatic in his approach to the job. “This project is one of a kind “, he says, “I’ll never work on a job like this again. It’s a high profile project, logistically and technically challenging. Also we are working directly with many parties including EDF Energy, the local community and the other development schemes nearby. The (oil tank) spaces are unique and present some big challenges for us. We are dealing with concrete that is 60 years old and we need to get the best out of that for the next part of its life. We also need to make something that was designed to store oil fit for a very different purpose and to be used by the public”. Sandy looks after a team of 85 people working on site at the moment. As the project develops the team will grow to peak at 450. “Our workforce is from all over the world and includes some very experienced workers as well as some new to the industry”. This is important to Tate. Both in the construction phases and once the new building is running we will work with the local Council (Southwark) to create opportunities for local people to get jobs and work experience on the project. In future blogs I will be talking to some of our new recruits drawn from south London. What you think about our plans to save and retain these tanks? Some might argue (and have done) that we should have just filled them in and used the site to create a new stand alone piece of signature architecture. However most people and certainly nearly all the artists we have talked to wanted us to preserve and make these spaces available for creative projects. Where do you stand on this one? Also we would be really interested in you sharing with us any examples where buildings have been retained and adapted which you particularly admire (or maybe did not work so well) . Large or small from houses to schools to factories and from anywhere in the world - let us know? Finally its Architecture Biennale time again in Venice (People meet in Architecture) for those of you lucky enough to get there it’s on until 21st November. As always lots of interesting, innovative and imaginative stuff to see and experience. The Bahrain pavilion (Reclaim) deservedly won the Golden Tulip for analysis of the changing relationship with its coastline as it is increasingly subject to building development. Olafur Ellaisson (who created the Weather Project in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003/04) has an amazing installation called Your Split Second House.
The British Pavilion curated by MUF Architects (Villa Frankenstein) is also well worth a visit. My particular favourite however was the Serbian pavilion (Seesaw Play-Grow) with its playful and humorous installation of giant see-saws for children of all ages to play on. They also have created small gardens on wheels using recycled materials which can be wheeled around with a leash a bit like walking your dog. It’s given me some ideas for the Bankside Urban Forest project we are working on around Tate Modern. More of which later. Cordiali Saluti.