Out on the terrace is not exactly the most obvious place to hang out with the calendar going inexorably towards December, but it's still unseasonably warm. It's been dry for weeks and the gales that wreaked havoc on the islands off the coast of Scotland last night haven't done much to disturb the peace here. There was some wind this morning but now it's calm. Best of all, the sun is out, though it's hanging quite low in the sky.
The view is stunning, as always. St. Paul's is imposing, rising imperturbably above the increasingly messy protest camp at its feet. It's a spectacular sight from any direction and cause of severe planning restrictions. The number of high-rises that slowly spread outwards from the City is surprising given the views protected by ordinances. On certain lines-of-sight, nothing can be built that might obstruct the mighty cathedral.
Ten miles up the Thames in Richmond Park is a little hill, a knoll, to employ a word that gave me good points in a game of Scrabble the other day, called King Henry VIII's Mound, with a telescope. Point the telescope at the plain in front of you, the obvious view overlooking the river, and you see the plain in front of you. Point it back towards London at a narrow clearing in the trees and you're bound to gape. Out of nowhere, St. Paul's jumps at you, hovering above the city like a mirage, with nothing in the way, rising above the horizon formed by the low wall encircling the mound. This view is part of the soul of London and the telescope free for all.
Nothing can be built between King Henry VIII's Mound and St. Paul's, in front of the cathedral or up to a dome and a half to either side. No one would imagine building something between me and St. Paul's at the moment either. The terrace I'm at is on the fifth floor of Tate Modern, facing the river and the cathedral behind. Leave Tate and walk a few minutes towards Southwark station and you will wonder how permission was ever granted to build the enormous power station that now houses the gallery, but out on the terrace, all you see are the river, the riverfront on the other side and the footbridge that takes you there.
The bridge was built in the run-up to the millennium festivities and like the Millennium Dome – the other highly visible infrastructure project at the time – it came dangerously close to being a complete failure. The bridge opened in June 2000 and earned the moniker Wobbly Bridge during the first two days when those crossing, mostly as part of a walk in support of Save the Children, experienced a noticeable sway. Some felt unwell.
Too late, engineers realized that the minimal lateral vibrations that were part of the design would cause people on the bridge to walk in step, amplifying the motion to intolerable levels. Two days after it opened with great pomp, the bridge was closed for refitting. It didn't open for another two years. Even so, that was much better than the Millennium Dome's immediate fate.
After running a mildly successful exhibition during 2000, the Millennium Dome stood empty for years. It was leased to a developer who initially couldn't figure out what to do with a gigantic events center in the void of North Greenwich. It was off most people's maps and sat there, a spiky white elephant of public spending gone horribly wrong. Somehow it was turned around, and now it's the world's busiest music venue, with frequent knock-out shows. Led Zeppelin's ephemeral reunion in 2009 could have sold a million tickets. Prince played 21 nights in 2007. Michael Jackson was scheduled to play 50 (but that proved too daunting a prospect).
I've never been to The O2, as the Millennium Dome is called these days, but, to bring this post back to where it belongs, I've been on the terrace at Tate Modern many times. It's the best part of the member's room, a café only accessible to those shelling out for an annual membership to Tate. I've been a member pretty much since I moved here. While Tate Modern and Tate Britain are free to visit, the temporary exhibitions cost dearly, but members always go free. When Salvator Dalí came around in summer 2007, I bought a membership and never looked back.
It was a good deal. After four visits, I had recouped my investment, and there are at least eight shows a year in the two London spaces. Sometimes I would go see an exhibition twice. Overall I got so much out of my membership that I was a bit embarrassed at times. I was not so much supporting the museum as taking advantage of it. Here are my favorite exhibitions over the last four years (Tate's online archive helping me remember):
Salvator Dalí ("The difference between me and a surrealist is that I'm a surrealist") got it all started. I didn't expect much of Francis Alÿs but was bowled over by his poetry in everyday actions. Pop Life was a gaudy riot. Rothko's enormous canvases seemed to change color as I watched them. Cildo Mereiles's installations turned the exhibition into an adventure.
Up the river at Tate Britain, the Turner Prize retrospective was fantastic: Anish Kapoor's infinity, moving video art, and the split cow, all you ever need to see of Damian Hirst. From John Everett Millais I learned that there's no end to the meaning a few masterfully painted hands can convey. Richard Long's memories of walks undertaken were huge and subtle at the same time.
My time in London is coming to an end. Whether it's weeks or months, departure is near, and I'm slowing winding down my presence. When my membership came up for renewal this month, I declined. And so it came to pass that this weekend is the last I can spend in the member's room. Earlier, I had a tea and a little salad, but now, with the sun setting but the view still splendid, it's time to say farewell.