Photo by Marcus Leith

Art museums, the cliché goes, are the cathedrals of our age, luring the faithful with the relics of Modernist saints. But these days, museum buildings have seemingly become more significant — or sexier — than the art they contain. It was Frank Gehry’s astonishing edifice, not the art on loan from New York’s Guggenheim Museum, that generated worldwide excitement when the Bilbao museum opened in 1997. Ditto Richard Meier’s Getty. Daniel Libeskind’s remarkable Jewish Museum in Berlin began admitting visitors last year even though the building was empty: People came not to look at artifacts, but to experience the architecture. And increasingly, that is precisely what museum architecture is offering: an experiential encounter that competes with, and often dwarfs, our encounters with the art inside.

London’s Tate Gallery of Modern Art, officially opened by Queen Elizabeth today, is the latest addition to this global museum sweepstakes. In a city that until now has lacked a major modern-art institution, the new Tate fills an obvious void, but its ambitions are far greater. For starters, it aims to rival the supremacy of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Paris’ Musée d’Art Moderne. And despite weaknesses in its permanent collection, particularly in several areas of early-20th-century art, Tate Modern will almost certainly take its place among the most-visited art shrines on the planet — in no small part because it boasts what may be the most spectacular public space created in the last century.

The twist in this story is that this is not a new building. At a moment when novel museum structures by the likes of Gehry and Libeskind have redefined the architectural landscape, the Tate chose to house its new spinoff in a gargantuan former power plant on the south bank of the Thames. (The old Tate, rechristened Tate Britain, remains in its building on the opposite side of the river, and will devote itself exclusively to British art.)

While artists have long been attracted to defunct warehouses and factories, the idea of a conversion on this scale is unprecedented. (The Geffen Contemporary, by comparison, is a shack.) Remodeled at a cost of $210 million by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the building’s interior has been transformed into a sublime industrial cathedral. Leaving its skeleton intact, Herzog and de Meuron have stripped down a grand hall that once housed giant turbines, creating a single vast “lobby” close to twice the length of a football field, with a 115-foot-high ceiling crowned by a boxlike, two-story skylight. The result is a soaring space that feels large enough to house half a dozen of Europe’s biggest churches. The impact, when you enter through the museum’s front doors, is overwhelmingly immediate and undeniably visceral. Given practical restrictions on size, it is difficult to imagine that any new building could ever deliver a similarly weighted punch.

Instead of seeking to impose signature design gestures, the architects have wisely decided to play off the former power plant’s strengths, blending old and new in a near-seamless fusion. Their minimal aesthetic tweaks generally seem like graceful additions: A series of luminous glass balconies that overlook the colossal turbine hall suggest softly radiant clouds and quietly diffuse the building’s industrial character. Herzog and de Meuron have included a few humorous touches as well: On the way to the restaurant, visitors pass a pristine fireplace, an apparent allusion to the building’s single massive chimney towering over the museum as a memento of an earlier era.

Eye-catching architecture usually bodes ill for the display of art, as architects frequently sacrifice the quality of exhibition spaces in pursuing their own visionary designs. Tate Modern intelligently resolves this potential conflict by housing its galleries on what are essentially three self-contained floors. Airy, uncluttered and elegantly lit, the variously sized rooms are art-friendly spaces that make only passing reference to the overpowering theatricality of the site.

The big drama in the galleries isn’t their design, but the way the Tate has re-displayed its permanent collection. In a radical break with the practice of exhibiting works chronologically and by school, the art is presented in four themed categories — landscape, history painting, still life and the body — that take off from basic genres established by the French Academy in the 17th century. The idea is to make earlier Modernist masterpieces more accessible by linking them to contemporary concerns: In one gallery, paintings by Picasso are intermingled among works by Cindy Sherman. In practice, though, this kind of themeing flattens our sense of how art practices develop over time, and actually obscures the complex interconnections between artworks whose ostensible subject matter may appear to be worlds apart — the lines of influence, say, between Pollock’s splatter paintings and the development of happenings and performance art.

The only other significant blot in this otherwise wonderful building is the fact that its largest and most spectacular feature — the entrance hall — is completely unsuited to showing art. The museum’s plan to exhibit large sculptures there — a gnarly Louise Bourgeois spider with 24-foot-long legs is on hand for the opening — seems utterly misguided, as even the most enormous works will inevitably look like miniatures in this immense setting. You get the impression that the Tate’s curators, by installing works on the ground floor, are simply trying to conceal the fact that the hall is no more than a great vehicle for wowing crowds. Indeed, it’s basically the equivalent of the exploding volcano outside the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas — a teasing promise of excitement meant to draw you on toward the galleries themselves.

As a themed business enterprise, Tate Modern isn’t all that remote from Vegas. Like any self-respecting new museum, it boasts a rooftop restaurant (with a view of St. Paul’s Cathedral), a number of bars and cafés, and an enormous store stretching across two levels. In addition to maintaining another shop in a London department store, the Tate recently announced a joint for-profit Internet venture with the Museum of Modern Art, appealing to customers who want to “access, understand and purchase the best in modern art, design and culture,” as a press release declared.

Finally, like the Guggenheim with its satellites in Bilbao and Berlin, the Tate is an expanding franchise, with smaller but significant venues already in place in Liverpool and Cornwall. Its influence stretches beyond the realm of art. And why shouldn’t it? If Gehry’s Bilbao museum could transform a little-known center of Basque terrorism and industrial decline into an international cultural landmark, presumably Tate Modern can aspire to be the new face of 21st-century London. Locally, it has already functioned as a power plant of economic growth, spurring real estate development throughout its lower-income neighborhood of Southwark.

The museum’s reinvention as a contemporary mass medium has its downside, of course. The stadium-rock approach to exhibition making is severely limited: A great deal of art, after all, is still designed to be seen by relatively small groups of people at a time, and works that require sustained contemplation don’t lend themselves to the conveyer-belt traffic flows enforced by blockbuster shows.

But as a mass medium, the museum building has distinct advantages. Far more effectively than a work of art, it can serve as a key icon of a city’s identity, a public symbol of shared values, or it can even suggest, like the architectural counterpart of a novel, a provocative world-view. And for a society that prizes packaging over content, it is the ideal cultural totem.

Tate Modern wants to be all of these things — to be far more, in other words, than the sum of its parts. Its awe-inspiring building succeeds beautifully, but it also leaves you wondering at what cost, and whether art can thrive under the big top if it’s no longer the main attraction.

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