The Tate Modern

The vista from the windows of the Tate Modern is so spectacular it’s easy to get distracted from its galleries full of awe-inspiring art.

Originally the home to the Bankside Power Station, the building was converted by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron and opened in 2000 as the Tate Modern Art Gallery. Set back from the Thames, behind a wide piazza and a plantation of trees, the massive, powerful brick structure, with its towering “lighthouse” chimney, dominates the riverbank and the skyline. The Millenium Bridge leads away from the piazza across the river to link it to the other side. Long windows, spaced along the building’s upper levels give real life, stunning pictures of Bankside, the Thames, St Pauls and the glass towers of the city.

The Tate Modern
The Tate Modern

The Tate Modern’s collection is organised under three headings – Material Gestures, poetry and Dream, Idea and Object and States of Flux – very useful for the layperson in tackling the enigma of modern art. It covers such movements as Abstractionism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Constructivism, Cubism, Futurism and Pop Art. It includes the work of artists like Monet, Rothko, Carl Andie, Dan Flavin, Jenny Holzer, Picasso and Andy Warhol. The Tate is famed for its cutting edge and often controversial exhibits, like the giant Louise Bourgois spider which crouched menacingly in the courtyard when I first visited and Doris Salcedo’s sculpture, Shobboleth 2007, a giant crack which snaked threateningly across the floor of the cavernous basement Turbine Gallery, ready to swallow the unwitting and the unwary.

It’s worth taking time at the Tate, just to drink it all in; the brilliant views, the incredible collections and the amazing architecture itself. There are also two great bookshops to browse and a very nice café for coffee breaks. Entry to most exhibitions at the Tate is free.

The London Eye

Although the latest and newest of London’s great landmarks, the London Eye has rapidly become one of its most popular. 3.5 million visitors per year pack like cattle into the queuing channels that stretch back from the river alongside County Hall, and wait for hours for a 45 minute whirl through the sky above the Thames.

Originally named the Millenium Wheel, and quickly dubbed “the big bike wheel”, the Eye was commissioned to mark the turn of the 21st century. The spinning circle of the Eye is a metaphor for the passage of time.

A view from the Eye
A view from the Eye

This great feat of architecture, engineering and design was masterminded by husband and wife team David Mark and Julia Barfield. The massive 2,100 ton structure was built further along the Thames then transported down the river in sections and assembled by a giant floating crane. The official opening and inaugural spin took place on December 31, 1999.

At its highest point the Eye is 135 metres high. Its 32 air-conditioned glass observation capsules, each accommodating 25 passengers, give a spectacular 40 kilometre view over London.

The London Eye was the tallest wheel in the world until 2006, when it was eclipsed by the Star of Nanchang and shortly thereafter by the Singapore flyer. Now it seems, every second city has its own Eye in the sky.

While it has the look of towering ferris wheel, the Eye offers none the thrills. Apart from the quick and measured step into and out of the moving capsules, a turn in the Eye is a somewhat tame experience, not unlike a slow, gentle and silent scenic circle in a plane. Sponsors, British Airways, offer the same kinds of “This-is-your-Captain-speaking’ welcome on embarkation, as well as in-flight cautions about refraining from smoking, eating, drinking and leaning on doors (– as if!) and “We hope you enjoyed your flight” farewells as any plane trip. However, the panorama of London and the Thames is breathtaking. The close-up view of the hub and spokes of the huge, turning wheel and the companion capsules hanging above and below is awe-inspiring.

For the vertiginous and claustrophobic, however, the Eye is as lovely from below and afar, as from inside and atop. From any vantage point, it looks sensational; it is beautiful seen from both the Westminster and the Hungerford bridges, looking from Embankment across the Thames, approaching from Waterloo past Shell Centre or strolling down Southbank. It is stunning by night, a radiant circle of neon suspended in the dark and at New Year, it is a shower of brilliant lights as fireworks explode around it.

The Eye is a feature of the city skyline now, just as the Eiffel tower is part of the Paris horizon. Just like Gustave Eiffel’s tower on the Champ de Mars, the initial appearance of Mark and Barfield’s Eye on Southbank provoked fierce controversy and debate with the cons condemning it as an eyesore and a waste of money and the pros defending it as a monumental achievement of design, architecture and engineering. Just as the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of the French reach into the twentieth century, so too, the Eye is a symbol of the English turn into the twenty-first. And in the same way as the Eiffel Tower has endured to become a Paris icon, so too is the Eye becoming a London icon.