Due to open this coming Saturday, the stark white block that is the Turner Contemporary gallery by 2011 Mies van der Rohe recipient David Chipperfield is being prepared for its grand unveiling in Margate. The quiet coastal town was once a hub of activity as holidaymakers flocked to its beaches during the brief flashes of British summer sunshine. Over the years, Brighton and Blackpool have slowly replaced Margate as the first choice for England’s sunseekers, and the erection of the Turner Contemporary marks the beginning of an ambitious plan to revitalise the area and attract a new crowd.
John Kampfner, Chair of the new gallery reasons: “The opening of the Turner Contemporary marks the start of an extraordinary opportunity for Margate and Thanet to become one of the UK’s most compelling culture and tourism destinations.”
Over the years, some of the UK’s most talented artistic minds have found solitude in Margate’s quaint Kentish streets and quintessentially British harbourside. The controversial Tracey Emin has documented her adventurous experiences as a young girl in the area, with an edition of her latest work – a shock of neon pink text proclaiming ‘I never stopped loving you’ – selling for almost £59,000, the proceeds from which were donated to the Turner Contemporary.
Equally controversial in his day, Romantic artist JMW Turner endured a lasting love affair with Margate, returning regularly to stay at a guesthouse by the pier. The new gallery that bears his name has been constructed on the site where this boarding house once stood, so that his powerful works may be viewed against the raw backdrop that once inspired him.
Delivered both on time and on a very reasonable budget of £17.5m, the Turner Contemporary is an ambitiously modern design for such a traditional seaside town. The concept comes from 2007 RIBA Stirling Prize, RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture and now 2011 Mies van der Rohe winner David Chipperfield, whose sensitive approach to the design location ensures that the clean lines and somewhat heavy exterior are balanced by the implementation of a glass envelope, the function of which it is to resist the corrosive qualities of the unavoidable sea spray and strong winds.
A number of large windows filter sunshine reflected by the sea into airy public spaces; however the prime gallery units are lit by smaller, perfectly angled panes which combine the harsh light from the north with a softer, more hazy glow from the south, described by Chipperfield as the ‘privilege of orientation’. The sloping roofs on each of the six identical volumes that make up the gallery have been specifically slanted so that the windows may capture the sun’s rays as their intensity alters throughout the seasons.
The completed structure is reminiscent of several previous Chipperfield designs, such as the blocky Fundación/Colección Jumex in Mexico City and the Estepona Theatre in Malaga with its stunning views over the nearby coastline, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the Figge Art Museum in Iowa. What separates this pale form from the plethora of Chipperfield’s previous compositions are the minute alterations that have originated from Chipperfield’s perception of the site location.
Reviews of the new art gallery have criticised the architect’s lack of respect for the existing clock tower on the edge of the project site. An image of how the harbourside looked in 1897 clearly shows the clock tower standing proudly over the bay, unencumbered by a hunk of concrete and acid-etched glass. This said, the renewal of Margate into a thriving tourist destination will need a bold and resourceful designer who is not afraid of taking risks in their work, and David Chipperfield may be just the man for the job.