In 2000, Bankside’s most reviled eyesore, a bleak power station—steely and cavernous, a cathedral to the soulless machinery of industry—was ingeniously converted into the national contemporary art collection of pieces made since 1900. Now it’s a temple to the machinery of the art world. It’s as integral to the tourist’s London as the Quire of Westminster Abbey or the Dome of St Paul’s, attracting 4.7 million annual visitors. The mammoth Turbine Hall, cleared of machinery to form a meadowlike expanse of concrete, often hosts works created by major-league artists for its periodic Hyundai Commission. People of every background frolic there as if it were a park.
In 2016, the Tate took on declining attendance by expanding its exhibition spaces by 60 percent with a newly built expansion in back. Now the Turbine Hall connects the original post-industrial, three-level galleries (the riverfront Boiler House) with a twisting 10-story custom-built tower behind them (Blavatnik Building) that’s topped with a terrace for views of St Paul’s dome. Beneath the new tower, in the power station’s former oil tanks, new performance spaces try to engage visitors (check online ahead of time for what’s on).
The formidable permanent collection, one of the world’s best for breadth, is always shifting, not just because the museum owns more than it can display (even with the new tower), but also because works vanish on shortterm loans. Some heavy hitters never leave, though. My favorite: Seven of the nine mono-tonal series created by Mark Rothko for New York City’s Four Seasons restaurant, which never fail to put visitors in a meditative mood (one of them, Black on Maroon, was restored after a 2012 vandalism incident). There are four free daily guided tours, usually at 11am, noon, 2pm, and 3pm; ask at the ground-floor desk to find out where to join them. At the family desk, open on weekends and busy days, kids pick up free drawing kits or tours based on sounds. One thing not to miss is the shop on the bottom floor. Also carve out refreshment time: The restaurant on Level 6 is a city highlight. I beeline for the 30 first-come bar stools facing floorto-ceiling glass over St Paul’s and the Thames. The fish and chips platter with minty mushy peas has my approval for flavor if not price ([£15, but that view!).