London was a very different place in May 2000. Sure, Tony Blair was in power and ‘Cool Britannia’ was a thing, but the city itself was pretty much as it had been in the 1970s. Its international appeal rested on crumbling heritage and countercultural kudos. Seediness was a major selling point and, even in the era of the ‘Spice Girls’, it didn’t feel as if much was about to change.
Other global cities turned to flashy institutional architecture to burnish cultural credentials, whether IM. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. London produced nothing remotely comparable. A 1990s extension to the National Gallery by American postmodernists Venturi Scott Brown was intelligent but undersized. The British Library followed in 1997 but, with a design dating back to the 1970s, met with little excitement, even if its virtues are now recognised. The opening of Tate Modern changed all that, handing London a cultural status – and touristic allure – to match those of New York and Paris.
The original Tate Gallery had been founded in 1897 to champion British art. A belated embrace of international works and an underpowered acquisition budget left it with a mediocre collection of modern art. Stranded in a lifeless residential district, it hosted endless exhibitions on Turner, the pre-Raphaelites and middle-ranking British painters of the post-war years. After his appointment in 1988, Tate’s new director Nicholas Serota strove to overcome these challenges, building visitor numbers and cultivating artists, particularly those engaged in ‘serious’ (and rarely British) arenas such as minimalism and neo-expressionism.
Serota had help in raising the profile of contemporary art. The emergence of the Young British Artists – Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood et al. – finally gave Britain an artistic movement with sex appeal at home and abroad, while the Thatcher years started London’s commercial art scene on the path to predominance. Tate had already established modest outposts in Liverpool and St Ives with some success, but had long-standing aspirations to separate its modern and British collections. The establishment of a National Lottery in 1993 to realise millennium projects, combined with Serota’s unprecedented skill at tapping elites old and new for cash, finally made “Tate Modern” a viable prospect.
The following year, a location was selected: Bankside Power Station, designed by architect Giles Gilbert Scott. Despite its central position across the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral, this massive brick structure – conceived in the 1940s, completed in 1962, then abandoned within two decades – barely impinged on public consciousness. It festered gently amid a messy patchwork of railway viaducts, bomb damage and abandoned warehouses, yet was conveniently adjacent to the rather grubby ribbon of cultural institutions built on the South Bank in the 1950s and 60s. With a handy subway line also under construction, the area was ripe for cultural re