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Interview: David Chipperfield on the Turner Contemporary Gallery

Daniel Rosbottom discusses the Turner Contemporary, Margate, with its architect, London, 4th April 2011

Daniel Rosbottom You have designed galleries in a number of different places across the world. Maybe we could start with an idea of Kenneth Frampton’s, from his essay on Critical Regionalism, where he singles out the gallery as the quintessential placeless building type, that commodifies art by never allowing it to be seen in relation to the natural setting of its context. This seems at odds with the premise of a gallery dedicated to the memory of a painter’s relationship to a place, as the Turner Contemporary is. Could you describe your attitude to place when you were designing the Gallery? Perhaps you might also touch on your experience of what one might call regional variations in gallery design?

David Chipperfield You would think that by now there would be a certain consensus amongst artists and curators about what makes good art space but in many ways it is still something of a free for all. It is influenced by certain cultural and regional prejudices, for example the North American way of lighting art is completely different to the practices of the German speaking world - so yes there are all sorts of reasons why doing a project for a gallery in England is different to doing one anywhere else and as with all other projects circumstances particularise gallery projects, more than one might really want to talk about.

There is an Anglo Saxon way of talking about architecture, which is overly practical, where we tend to justify the outcomes in relation to all the processes and particular conditions. In the end, it is what you are left with which is interesting. In my view, when you start designing a gallery you have to start as you would with any other piece of architecture, by asking what is particular about the situation - either the collection or the society that it will sit within, or the building culture for example.

The ambitions for this project were first of all that, given its lack of a permanent collection, it should be understood as a kunsthalle, rather than as a museum. It is an arts centre. I was interested in what might help guarantee that potentially fragile condition.

DR …especially within a regional UK context, which does not have the culture and network for regional touring exhibitions that you get in many countries across Europe

DC That’s right, and in Margate we had the further problem that we were not building upon an established institution. It’s a relatively new institution without a permanent collection and so our approach was to think about the building as a kind of cultural centre which could be open to the people of Margate.

DR What is your response to the prevailing tendency that considers cultural buildings as vehicles of regeneration? This often seems to undermine or replace their actual purpose and potentially to offer false promises?

DC Margate has real social and economic problems, which are explicit within the physical fabric of the town, but I think it is right not to stress issues of regeneration and that has always been my policy. One may have expectations and ambitions for regeneration, and a building may possibly do something to fulfill them but that cannot be its primary purpose. As an architect you have to work hard for what it is meant to be doing and making sure it does it well. If, as a result, you get regeneration, then that is, of course, fantastic but it cannot be the reason to undertake a building project.

Our hope with the Turner Contemporary was that it could offer the potential to be socially regenerative, if not immediately financially regenerative. We have done a number of projects in North America, which have had similar issues, such as the Anchorage Museum, Alaska or the library in Des Moines, which were on downtown sites within depressed communities. I think these were interesting aspects of the projects, which we worked hard to help address. I particularly valued the process of engagement in such instances.

In such a context the architectural task is to create real value, getting the most out of the budget but more importantly making the building as open, inviting and unintimidating as possible, so that it works for the whole community. In the case of a cultural institution this means it should be less like a temple. It’s not about getting existing museum goers to go, it’s the wider community that is the issue.

DR Given that ambition, perhaps we could move on to discuss the atmosphere of the rooms - the gallery spaces at the Turner Contemporary? How do the interiors invoke that sense of invitation?

DC I wanted the gallery spaces to have more the quality of artist studios, rather than traditional museum spaces. I think they have a certain innocence and freshness, which makes them not quite so institutional. You do get the sense that the artist might have been working in the room and has perhaps just finished. It is always critical to consider what the institution should feel like and in a place like Margate you don’t want it to be overbearing.

DR I thought, following my visit, that the quality you describe was very apparent. The light, scale and proportion of the rooms offer an atmosphere that feels just on the right side of intimacy. I would imagine that they could deal with the potentially variable scale and quality of changing exhibitions within a regional gallery context. Returning to the issue of art being seen ‘in place’, the quality of natural light in those spaces seems particularly important for a building whose name dedicates it to the memory of Turner and which is built in a place that he visited for the qualities of its light. In this respect, your building seems to respond to a sense of place and to challenge artists and curators to do so.

DC It is all about the light and I think the light distribution on the walls is quite amazing. At times when you look into the corner, there is almost no shadow and it disappears, creating a strange sense of perspective. When you go to this seaside place and you remember that’s why Turner was there, you want to somehow to make the experience of the light ‘solid’, then you have a place from which to begin.

We also have this strange and unique condition, which brings one right back to the idea of why Turner went there, which is that the site faces just about due north as you look to the sea. The long edge of the building against the sea, is parallel with the shoreline and almost exactly east west, to the inch, and so the gallery mono-pitches face due north. This is a piece of tremendous good fortune. I was brought up on the south coast, thinking the sea and the sun come from the same direction. Here we were very lucky to have sea and north light in coincidence. You also get the sun setting, in mid summer, towards the north west - with the light glancing off the water, which is fantastic. Whilst one can’t categorically prove it, the quality of light coming off water feels different and I think people do appear to sense that. I think they also understand that daylight is different to artificial light in a gallery context.

DR I know you have an ongoing relation to the lighting engineers at Arup, which you have developed across several projects. Turner was apparently very interested in science - painting steamboats and trains and maintaining close friendships with a number of scientists. In the context of the sensitivity to daylight within contemporary curatorial and conservation practice, I find it very interesting that some south light has been allowed into the galleries. This gives the rooms a wonderful colour temperature. It is obviously precisely calculated and it interests me that the resultant of engineering here is an experiential one, rather than something overtly technological.

DC The south lights in the slope of the mono-pitches are actually very simple, baffling out direct light and containing a blackout blind for when darkness is required - nothing more complicated than that. You are right, in that one wants to engage science in a way that means it isn’t used to solve a problem at the end. Things go wrong in the design of museums when you introduce anything that is overly complex. The first time it doesn’t work, they turn it off. Museums can be ruthless and seem to think that daylight is a fuss, so you should not make anything that is complicated, likely to fail or difficult to use - but you can use complex means to simulate exactly what the resultant might be. In this building, we use the most primitive lighting technique in some ways, vertical high-level windows for North light, with blinds, and a slot for south light, with a blind and a translucent face. It is simple but precisely calculated.

DR I think this is what I am trying to get at - that here the engineering seems the right way round. So often architects’ relationships with engineers are either that they try to ignore them or that the engineering becomes objectified and fetishised. Here you seem to have achieved the ideal of working with a perceptive and sensitive engineer, using your collective experience to achieve a simple but precisely calibrated result.

DC Sometimes engineers get completely obsessed and then you go into a historic gallery and everything is working beautifully and you think to yourself ’ why can’t we just do it like this’. Andy Sedgewick (of Arup) who we have worked with many times, is very good because his first question is always ‘what is it that you want to do’ and then he works with you to solve how to do it. The south light in the Turner Contemporary galleries is allowed in, not only to get a colour mix, but also to counter the dark, shadowed wall that you would otherwise see against the north light. You can do a certain amount to correct this problem by bouncing the north light off the ceiling but the small amount of south light allows a completely even spread.

Of course there is a particular issue with institutions like this one, which rely on borrowed works. It is a big concern and the thing that we had to ensure we got right. If, as a gallery, you don’t have a permanent collection then you don’t have any leverage. So you might want to borrow something from a major historic collection that is shown in the most terrible light conditions and with poor humidity control - but they won’t lend it to you unless your conditions are absolutely spot-on. As a museum with a permanent collection, if you have something they need then you can trade. Therefore the trade between major institutions is fairly easy. Paradoxically, if you are a small institution like the one in Margate, then you have to have perfect conditions, in order to be able to borrow anything.

DR …of course, this is part of the symptom for what Frampton was describing. I know Nicholas Serota (of the Tate) is sitting on a committee that is supposed to be examining the rules in relation to this subject?

DC That will be a fundamentally important discussion for the future of gallery design I think.

DR The other question that we might discuss with regard to the building’s affinities with Turner is its relationship to the sea. Ruskin says that Turner is the only person who can paint calm water, but of course he also reveled in the romanticism of stormy seas. When I visited the sea was still and it, the sky and the building were tones of the same colour. However the building will obviously have to cope with extreme weather conditions too. It sits on the site of Turner’s lodging house and so he must have experienced those same conditions very directly.

DC Yes, lets talk about the outside. I get the sense that people are very comfortable with the inside. People from Margate arrive in the lobby and look out at the Sea in the same way as people from the village where my house in Galicia is. I say ’ You have seen that before and they say, yes but it looks really beautiful from here.’

DR …so one relationship is about framing?

DC Yes, there are a series of nice relationships framed by the spaces, for example from the event space or from inside the galleries, where you can still catch glimpses of the horizon. From the outside though, people have commented that it is nothing but a shed and I think ‘well actually, I will settle for that’. I have to say that it was difficult to find what personality the building should have.

DR So how do you think your building is influenced by its placement?

DC Firstly, it’s not really part of the town, being cut off by a busy road and I can see that Snohetta’s idea (the previous project for the Turner Contemporary, cancelled for budgetry and technical reasons) had a certain beauty, because if you can’t be part of the town then perhaps you should be of the sea.

However, the building is hit by quite powerful waves, even where we have built it and one can see the probably insurmountable issues that Snohetta were facing. For a couple of weeks a year, the weather is so rough in Margate that not even the museum staff, let alone the visitors, would have been able to get there.

As a result, we have probably ended up in the most difficult place, which is the margin - an interstitial territory that is traditionally, in such places, a robust space of tarmac and parked cars. What do you put there as a cultural building and how do you place it? It is difficult. I would have liked to place our project closer to the water’s edge but unfortunately this was a space needed for the lifeboat to get past, from the neighbouring lifeboat shed. We haven’t really been in a position to significantly landscape the surroundings because of those requirements.

Perhaps the lifeboat could have been reorganised but in the event it means we are sitting ambiguously with the siting explained in relation to other things - between the restrictions of boat and the road. I must say that I found that a little bit uncomfortable. Of course, on a relatively low cost building, these issues are difficult. As soon as you start having to spend money on infrastructure you go over-budget. In another place you might have expected a wider municipal engagement with these issues. In the UK, architecture seems to be asked to solve a lot of questions that in the end, it is not really able to.

DR The building seems to quite enjoy the haphazard relationships and idiosyncracies with what is already there. Would you describe the building as another harbour side structure?

DC Yes, it is a quasi semi-industrial space that seemed to us to be a natural part of such territories. I suppose that I still struggle slightly with what else a building in such a place might look like - so at a glance this could be a shed for boat building instead of an art gallery.

DR In the painting by Turner, Margate Harbour, or his famous painting of the Shipwreck at Tate Britain, sails offer strong geometrical points of brightness within the indeterminacy of light or dark which forms the background. It struck me when I looked at the gallery, across the beach from the Railway station, that your building offered a similarly clear geometry and brightness, against the variegated grain of Margate’s promenade and the expanse of the sea. This seemed an interesting visual memory. Is it one you recognise at all?

DC Yes, that’s interesting. In terms of the materiality of the building, we started off with romantic ideas about timber boat sheds and in another time and place…maybe. You quickly realise the realities though, in terms of maintenance and durability, when the building is being hit by waves and spray continuously. This meant that options were limited and we ended up with a glass façade from a practical point of view - but I also thought if the theme is about light on the inside then perhaps it could be about light on the outside as well. To be truthful I hoped we would be able to use recycled glass, as we did at the Folkwang Museum in Essen. That is greenish in tone, with more of a material quality. It is cast and feels somewhere between glass and stone. Nonetheless the idea of a reflective, abstracted façade was what we wanted and the strong, simple geometry of the repeated forms was trying to offer something specific to this between place.

In the end the building is a solitaire standing against the sea, and in my view therefore, it did not want to be too complex. Of course at the beginning one thinks of potentially nice relationships, such as external balconies overlooking the water, but the realities of the building being hit by powerful waves means that, disregarding the technical difficulties in relation to climatic control etc. they would probably have been closed much of the time. So for us this was not a building whose form could be opened up to its environment - it is more about being battened down.

DR Perhaps, in the end, this is stronger in relation to the idea of re-framing the expanse of the sea? Perhaps we could also discuss the relationships the building makes back to the town?

DC I think one thing the building does well, in terms of its formal composition, is to create a south facing courtyard, facing the town, which is at least partially sheltered from the wind. I hope it will act as a kind of bridge between the Gallery and the town. I would like to imagine that people will walk along the promenade, until it opens up to the courtyard and from there they will be able to wander into the café and bookshop. I hope that it creates a new public space as a natural termination of the sea wall. In the end though the final form arrived out of the geometry of the rooms within.

DR That leads me to a question about the principal of the gallery as a room and art galleries as an ensemble of rooms. This seems to be a theme within your work on the gallery as a type, whether at Anchorage or the forthcoming Hepworth gallery in Wakefield. Perhaps you could talk a little about this and also about the relationship of the individual gallery to the building as a whole

DC There is an idea that architectural form can offer a dynamic relationship with architectural space so that the form of the inside can inform the particular qualities of the outside and vice versa. That is what both the Hepworth Wakefield and the Turner Contemporary are about. Instead of shaping secondary elements around a gallery box, we asked whether exterior form could not be a direct consequence of the qualities of individual galleries. In the iterations of the Hepworth for example, we had versions that looked like a field of sugar lumps, where the room increment was very small.

There were other versions where we had only a few very large rooms. It is complicated because the consequences on both interior and exterior need to be constantly readdressed in relation to one another. What is nice though is that in testing these relationships you can follow through what the building is trying to be, I like that moment. At both Margate and Wakefield, we have attempted to manipulate the architectural form and the internal volumes in dialogue with each other. This goes back to something we talk about continuously in the office, which is what is the appropriate size and form of an art room. In contrast, in Mexico, we are doing a building where, because of the collection and the previous home of the institution within a big shed, we have been able to make the whole floor into a single art space.

DR How do you see the relationship between the spaces for art and the other spaces of a contemporary gallery?

DC I think there is a strange thing that happens in the design of contemporary cultural buildings. The drama that such institutions increasingly seem to require is generally achieved through the grafting on of circulation spaces and bits of ancillary programme, which are not to do with the primary activity. It is interesting that if you go back and look at historical precedents, there was not much between the front door and the first piece of art. Now we are dealing with the museum or gallery as part of the leisure industry. All the bits that are now regarded as essential - the shop, entrance, café, education space, big staircase etc. serve to collectively distance the visitor from the art. Now museum directors have to go through their collection and choose pieces because they fit those spaces rather than because it makes sense in terms of curatorship.

DR So the art is used to dress spaces?

DC Yes and it has absolutely nothing to do with what the business of the building actually is or with curatorship or the qualities of the pieces in relation to each other. At our project in St Louis we have managed to arrive almost directly to the art, at the moment of entry, because the patron made a comment that ‘she was fed up with it taking 20 minutes before she saw a piece of art’ - she is absolutely right.

At the gallery in Malmo by Anshelm, you walk through the exterior wall and are immediately into a huge room with hardly a moment to catch your breath. That was the idea that art was on the high street. I think Malmo is absolutely fantastic for that and we really had it in mind when we were designing the project in Margate…but it is really difficult to do in a contemporary setting and does not really fit with all the preconditions of funding.

DR You seem to have achieved something of this at the Turner. The shop is very nice because it is treated as tertiary, a series of wheeled boxes floating in what feels like a gallery. The Clore education space also has a form and scale that is the same as the three principal galleries. It feels like the art is always in the conversation.

DC That’s good. We fought hard for to achieve that feeling and it is nice that for the opening exhibition, the piece by Daniel Buren makes it clear that what might be thought of as a lobby, is actually a space for art.

  • Daniel Rosbottom is Head of School of Architecture and Landscape – Kingston University London and Director, DRDH Architects

 

  • An interview with David Chipperfield on the Turner Contemporary Gallery

    Interview: David Chipperfield on the Turner Contemporary Gallery

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