I hope people are not too disappointed,” says David Chipperfield. Our Southeastern high-speed train is hurtling – well, trundling – towards Margate, home of the Turner Contemporary, the RIBA Royal Gold Medallist’s new gallery and cultural centre. And Chipperfield is doing everything he can to dampen the expectations of the press pack. ”It’s not a big building, it’s a modest little project. I just feel a bit guilty that there are 20 journalists coming down to this little museum project.”
Winsome self-deprecation? There’s a bit more to it than that. The Turner Contemporary is a uniquely sensitive project. Its aim is, at least in part, “regeneration”, the urban faith-healing that remedies ailing communities by applying a multi-million-pound poultice designed by a brand-name architect. Regeneration is increasingly mired in scepticism. Its jet-lagged shapemakers have produced some trumpeting white elephants and outright dogs, for sure, but in some places a glittering cultural hub might not have been what the socioeconomic circumstances demanded, and the building and its architect have ended up being the scapegoat. And that scepticism was well advanced before the newly austere political establishment started treating the arts as extravagances.
Add to that Chipperfield’s disdain for the media circus. “Things should be evaluated in the right way,” he complains; the problem with architecture is that the sensation-seeking media demands funky shapes, and architects have obliged, to the detriment of architecture. He seems resigned to the idea that the Turner Contemporary will be evaluated in the wrong way, mainly because the media script for the day is already part-written. According to this script (well-rehearsed in newspapers and magazines everywhere), Chipperfield is adored on the Continent, particularly in Germany, but ignored in the UK, where he has yet to put his name to a major project. Now that, at last, he’s building here – not only in Margate, but also in Wakefield and London – it’s time for The Verdict.
The sea hits you in the face when you arrive in Margate. It’s right in front of you when you step out of the station. Almost the second thing you see, framing the North Sea horizon to the right, is the Turner Contemporary. It is, as Chipperfield says, not a big building. Instead it stands out because it’s so unlike the decaying Victoriana and kiss-me-quick kitsch that makes up the rest of the town’s seafront. Margate’s shabbiness goes beyond “down-at-heel charm” and approaches “post-apocalyptic”. Chipperfield’s cluster of icy off-white cubes with monopitch roofs is as shocking as finding a box-fresh iPad 2 in Oxfam. The first impression is inescapably industrial or logistic: a well mannered electricity substation, a teflon-covered loading bay. With a stretch, a maritime metaphor or two could be drawn: a huddle of space-age beach huts or bathing machines, perhaps. But it’s the industrial comparisons that Chipperfield embraces.
“Someone criticised it, said it was ‘just a shed’,” he says laconically. “I thought, that’s OK. In a way a sophisticated shed is what we wanted, insofar as it should just be a very nice space, and that space should show art well, it should present this world to people who might be sceptical about it, and encourage them to go across the threshold.”
The approach is a bracing walk along the front in weather that, if it got its act together, could aspire to be drizzle. The landscape painter JMW Turner (1775-1851) first came to Margate as a boy, but returned for extended stays in the 1820s, staying in Mrs Booth’s guest house, which stood on the site of the cultural centre now bearing his name. Turner is famous for seas and storms, paintings in which extremities of weather and light seem to overwhelm all other detail in the frame. Any seaside monument to him would have to have a direct relationship to the sea – and so it does. The Turner Contemporary is on an inhospitable shoulder of the harbour at a slight remove from the town, in the hinterland between land and water. “The waves hit the building,” says Chipperfield. “It’s a very brutal condition.”
This proved the undoing of the first Turner Contemporary project. Norwegian architect Snøhetta won a competition for the gallery in 2001 with an essentially waterbound design that clung to Margate’s harbour arm. Costs for the hugely ambitious proposal hurtled up from £7 million to £25 million before Kent county council dumped the architect in 2006. Chipperfield won the second competition, with a budget of £17 million. “We suffered a little from the backlash,” he recalls. “We inherited a very nervous client; very suspicious of architects, very nervous about money.”
The waves that periodically lash the site are the reason for the Contemporary’s icy complexion: it is clad in acid-etched glass, the best possible material to shrug off the water and salt. But it is not hunched or bunker-like, unlike the other nearby instance of modern architecture, a black drum-shaped visitors’ centre extension built by Terry Farrell in the 1980s. The lobby connects the sheltered, town-facing entrance with a gigantic picture window overlooking the sea, binding the two prospects together. This picture window is a signature feature for the museum, and has been framed by an op-art-style work by French artist Daniel Buren. While Chipperfield says the site is “neither of the sea nor is it of the town”, this lobby manages to be both, creating a generous and welcoming public space in place of a hinterland.
This is key to the project – a connection to the town and a welcoming space to the townsfolk. Chipperfield isn’t averse to the underlying idea of regeneration, just what that idea has come to mean: the erection of flashy shapes designed for a quick publicity fix and a bump in tourism. That would, in his words, be “a sugar rush that would burn out very quickly. First of all it’s a building for the town. If your institution does its job well, it will attract [visitors]. But you have to do your primary task. The primary task is to make a cultural centre for the community and, in an area like this, that’s task enough.”
The Turner Contemporary has no permanent collection. Instead it will put on a programme of temporary exhibitions and borrow Turner’s paintings via an arrangement with the Tate Britain in London. Chipperfield’s other major forthcoming gallery project, the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire, is in part designed to show specific works of sculpture, and has an enfilade of galleries exactly tuned to those works. Here, the spaces could be showing anything. Rather than using this blank slate to create one of the amorphous, free-flowing, “dynamic” gallery spaces presently popular among architects of cultural showpieces, Chipperfield has chosen to maintain what he calls “the authority of the room structure”, giving the gallery’s curatorial team a series of simple orthogonal boxes to work in.
But this disciplined approach does not make a space that is monumental or institutional. Instead the galleries, which are on the first floor of the two-storey building, are more akin to artists’ studios. This is primarily thanks to their masterful use of light. “We were very concerned with daylight, how to use that as a material and suck it into the building,” says Chipperfield. He employed engineer Arup’s “daylight guru” Andy Sedgwick to maximise this natural resource, the quality that first drew Turner to the Kent coast. Long, narrow windows are placed in the north-facing walls near the peak of the monopitch roofs, which are inset with tinted south-facing skylights. The morning of our visit was as grey as they come, but still the galleries were bright, without a hint of artificial light and without sacrificing premium wall space to window. Chipperfield is justly proud of this, and permits himself a moment of immodesty – getting enough daylight into the space “probably seems easy to do, but I assure you it isn’t”. It’s only a pity, he says, that the inaugural show requires the galleries to be blacked out in order to show works including a mesmerising kinetic sculpture by Conrad Shawcross and an etched panorama of Margate by Ellen Harvey.
The sparse, simple, artists’-studio feel is completed by a humble palette of materials including pale, almost sandy, magnesite screed floors and galvanised steel window frames. This is of course tied together with the superb detailing that Chipperfield excels at. Even if you’re not the kind to go gooey over a mastic joint, the gallery spaces and the glass exterior have the crispness and hospital corners that make a place feel well wrought, like a linen napkin in a good restaurant. Picture windows also dominate the cafe and the multi-purpose learning space on the ground floor. The administration office has an unbeatable view of the sea that compensates for its slightly oppressive low concrete ceiling. The overall effect is solid, frank, but also fresh and bright. “We feel small and overwhelmed in the face of powers we cannot control,” wrote the art critic EH Gombrich on Turner, “and are compelled to admire the artist who had nature’s forces at his command.” Seeing what Chipperfield has done with simple materials and straightforward spaces, and the sea and the light, you begin to feel the same way about him.
“I see this building as having a certain innocence,” says Chipperfield. And that’s it exactly. The architect was presented with a morass of prejudices, suspicions, expectations and preconceptions. A storied site. A troubled project history. A client wary of architects. A town unsure of modern architecture. A media with its story already half written. And all that has been washed off the Turner Contemporary like a wave on the frosty glass. The gallery is pristine, with a purity that is assertive without being pompous or pretentious. On the difference between himself and the shapemakers, Chipperfield poses the question: “If you don’t believe that architecture is meant to look funny, what should it look like?” The Turner Contemporary is a good answer.
© Richard Bryant/arcaidimages.com
credit © Richard Bryant/arcaidimages.com