Spaces are defined by the relationship between sea and north light in David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary. Photography by Richard Bryant
Situated in the faded seaside town of Margate on the Isle of Thanet, the most easterly point of England’s Kent coast, the £17.5 million Turner Contemporary is the first of two art galleries by David Chipperfield Architects, due to open in 2011. The other is a building dedicated to the British Modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth in her hometown of Wakefield.
Together, they register a significant moment for one of Britain’s leading architects, returning to build on his native shores for the first time in over a decade. In all likelihood, they are also a high-water mark for the policy of strengthening regional arts provision beyond London, against which the tide of austerity has turned. But unlike the Hepworth Wakefield, which will hold the sculptor’s pieces in its collection, the Turner Contemporary is not a repository for the art of its namesake, the celebrated 19th-century painter JMW Turner. Instead its relationship with him is one of association.
John Ruskin described Turner as ‘the father of modern art’. His work pre-figured French Impressionism and he was a hero for the Abstract Expressionists. Subsequently, though, his legacy has largely been relegated to the academic past. In recognising his art as being radical within its own time, the gallery seeks to draw a thread between Turner and today’s artists. While his paintings might periodically hang in the Turner Contemporary, they are primarily designed to accommodate the breadth of current art production.
Perhaps a more significant association then is the latent one, borne out of a shared experience of place. Turner remarked that ‘the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe’, often returning to Margate to capture their shifting light in lucid paint. The opportunity for the gallery, which occupies the former site of his lodgings there, is to recreate that experience for visitors.
Here you confront a potential paradox. For as the distinguished critic Kenneth Frampton points out, the modern art gallery, as a type, exemplifies the dislocation of contemporary culture from its situation. Curatorial practices encapsulate art within hermetic, controlled environments and reduce it to a commodity, rendered placeless by the loss of interaction between ‘culture and nature… art and light’. The challenge then, for a gallery bearing Turner’s name, is to embody his maxim that ‘the Sun is God’.
The 2,000m² building is arranged over two floors, within six equivalent volumes, clustered around a central spine. As you might expect of a building without a collection, staff and ancillary functions are tightly planned, with most spaces given over to the public. These share a restrained yet luminous palette of polished concrete floors, white walls, ribbed concrete soffits or white ceilings. The principal galleries, on the upper floor, open into the mono-pitched roofs of three of the volumes.
These spaces are emphatically concerned with the qualities of natural light, their form being defined by a simple but singular condition: the coincident relationship of sea and north light. The latter is admitted through high-level, clerestorey windows, with a directness that David Chipperfield describes as the ‘most primitive form of lighting’, likening it to that of an artist’s studio.
Something more surprising happens within the opposing pitch. Here, a linear rooflight permits a small amount of south light to enter. This gives each room a warm colour temperature and an even light distribution, countering the dark surface that you would otherwise perceive below the north light.
Consequently, the atmosphere of these rooms feels satisfying. Yet in the context of an extreme sensitivity to daylight, within contemporary curatorial and conservation practice, Chipperfield observes the importance of resolving this small yet radical innovation with absolute precision, especially for an institution that, with no collection of its own, relies upon loans. Turner, apparently fascinated by science, would undoubtedly have applauded the fact that the sophisticated process of calculation and testing, necessary to achieve appropriate light levels, has delivered an outcome that is simple and powerfully experiential, rather than overtly technological.
If the galleries enjoy the sky, then the experience of the other principal spaces is focused upon the water. The expansive windows of the entrance gallery, event space and education room each frame the sea’s horizon in a different way, the latter enjoying views that Turner might have seen from his windows. Gratifyingly, the offices offer staff similarly edifying vistas across both sea and town.
Chipperfield admits to having felt slightly uncomfortable about the building’s ambiguous setting, within the interstitial territory between these two conditions. In one sense its placement is clear, concluding a long sweep of beach and promenade, where white cliffs rise to form Kent’s characteristic coastline. Here, as the seawall turns into the enfolding harbour arm, the building defines a south-facing, sheltered public space, allowing the café and entrance to open on to the town. Unfortunately, the intervening road undermines the immediacy of this connection and the building is held back from a more direct adjacency with the water, by the contingent requirements of the adjacent lifeboat station.
In response, the architecture offers a quasi-industrial character, the didactic clarity of which engages memories of the harbourside structures that typically inhabit such hinterlands. The building’s ensemble of six mono-pitched volumes feels analogous to the neighbouring boatshed and seems contentedly part of the haphazard assemblage of objects via which the town negotiates its relationship with the sea.
On a calm day, that relationship feels benign, but Turner came here for the drama of stormy weather. It was in the force of those rough seas that an earlier, ill-fated proposal by Snøhetta was lost amid a spiralling vortex of cost and technical concerns. The reality of maintaining a building battered by waves and salt spray limited the material choices.
The resulting glass skin extends the theme of interior luminosity into one of external reflectivity. The centre has an abstract, crystalline quality, its colour adjusting in concert with the sea and sky. But it is most effective when seen across the bay, against the heterogeneous grain of Margate’s seafront and the hazy atmospherics of the North Sea. From here, the shining profiles of gables recall the bright geometry of sails in Turner’s sea paintings.
If the project has a directness appropriate to its situation, it also appears critical of the priorities that condition similar cultural institutions. Eschewing the temptation to over-dramatise ancillary function, the Turner Contemporary and Hepworth Wakefield seek to define exterior form in qualities of, and relationships among, individual galleries. Here the café is downplayed and the shop and reception are furniture. Education facilities occupy a room equivalent to its adjacent galleries, giving the sense that art is central to the conversation.
You hope that such integrity will stand the institution in good stead, for Margate expects much from the art space as a catalyst for renewal. Tracey Emin, the town’s other famous artist, has remarked that ‘what’s brilliant about the Turner Centre is that it has given people hope that things are going to change’. Chipperfield, more cautiously, suggests that the building’s first responsibility is to be a good place to see art. Yet in celebrating the singular qualities that drew the great painter to the town, it might be said to go further, placing art in Margate. In so doing, it takes a first step in revealing those qualities to others.
Architect David Chipperfield Architects, London
Structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor
Services engineer Arup
Facade consultant Arup
Landscape architect Gross Max