David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary gallery is a very photogenic building. Having read quite a few positive and negative articles about it and finally visiting Margate one cannot help but wonder : “Is this what the fuss is all about?”.
The gallery’s site is very privileged. Placed on the raised promenade next to the seafront it cannot be missed. However the building itself is a rather modest structure, much less impressive than it seems to be in photographs. Many visitors and journalists have described it as a boat-shed and regardless of the crisp detailing (only obvious to the trained architect’s eye) it really does look like a boat-shed.
The feelings are equally mixed when one enters it. The first impression is really good, almost grand. The spacious double-height gallery opposite the art shop, with breathtaking views of the sea and complemented currently by Rodin’s iconic sculpture of “the Kiss”, is truly wonderful.
Once upstairs the visitor lands on a balcony overlooking the double-height gallery and enjoys the view of the sea once more before entering the galleries. By entering the main exhibition space, any contact with the building is somehow lost, as all skylights have been blinded and the environment seems totally artificial. When Turner Contemporary was first presented to the public, it was praised on its quality of natural light in the galleries, which according to the architect has been manipulated in such a way to achieve even distribution without producing any shadows. Here it seems that the curator’s needs for this exhibition were not in sync with the architectural scheme and the advantages the building offers. The choice to use the building’s assets would ultimately make the visit a truly unique experience. On the contrary, by having all natural light blocked, one does not perceive the geometry of the space at all. These rooms could be white rooms anywhere else, they do not truly belong to this particular building any more. The first floor gallery spaces seem to be reduced to a vacuum with no identity which contradicts the purpose of creating this museum in the first place. Should not art and architecture attempt to compliment each other?
Maybe the purpose of this museum is what has been often been defined as the “Bilbao effect” : the construction of an iconic building that enhances a city’s identity, placing it on the map of ‘must see’ places for tourists. Was the placement of Turner Contemporary in Margate a political move then? David Chipperfield has stated that “buildings such as this should not be procured on the basis of regeneration. It’s about building an institution which is important for the town,’ not the ‘cultural elite’ from London”. *
This museum has been considered as another way to waste money that could have been invested in reducing Margate’s elevated unemployment rate, one of the highest in south-east England. Such views should not be disregarded in reviewing new public buildings. After all, public buildings should be examined first and foremost through the political prism of their impact on the community they were meant for.
Having visited Turner Contemporary during the “Nothing in the world but youth” exhibition and witnessing the students of Margate participating in the creative workshops taking place in the ‘learning studio’, it was obvious that this place is currently a vibrant community hub. Therefore the overall experience was not as dramatic or controversial as ‘promised’. It was merely a visit to a seaside town with a new building which regardless its looks seems to be integrating nicely in the community. Sometimes, strange as it might be for any formalist, this is even more important than the building’s appearance.
*David Chipperfield’s quote taken from “Turner Contemporary, Margate, by David Chipperfield Architects” article by Christine Murray published in Architect’s Journal on April 28th 2011