Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Turner Contemporary, Margate

This sunny easter weekend I adjourned to the faded seaside resort of Margate in Thanet on the North Kent coast, where the Turner Contemporary art gallery, designed by  David Chipperfield Architects, opened to a fanfare of regenerational enthusiasm earlier this month.

Margate is a peculiar relic of a bygone era, trying to find a place for itself in the new world order of EasyJet and Ryanair, steeped in the crumbling history of the British seaside resort. The coastline here is long, sandy, edged with cliffs and obsolete 20th century marvels - lifts, lidos, sea-pools and dance halls. The buildings in the tightly packed lanes and tiny streets are an essay in Victorian grandeur. Between the the two, the sea front is lined with hotels of varying seediness, bars, chip shops, candy stalls and giant sheds full of flashing lights and machines to put money into. On Saturday of Easter weekend, the place was bustling with families, couples on day trips from London and gangs of young people with tattoos and cans of beer, all with enough sunburn to rival Brits on the beaches of the Costa del Sol.

The turner Contemporary stands, a slightly snooty white beacon, overlooking the seaside hubbub. It is at the far Eastern end of the main Margate promenade, and is housed in a series (six, the Chipperfield website says) of pitched roof blocks which face out to sea. The blocks are unassuming in shape, rather like big garden sheds. They are bluish-white, entirely glazed with etched glass which is neatly and symmetrically housed in lattice of rectangular mullions.

Inside, the galleries are pale and peaceful, although the mono-pitched roofs create a lower side to each room which seems uncomfortable where artworks are tall enough to come close to touching the ceiling. They are flooded with north light, which filters through clerestory windows facing the sea. Swathes of beautifully laid pale grey concrete floors abut white walls, all of which are constructed delicately and well, with clever detailing and high quality materials. The main entrance is orientated west, opening with a cafe and bar towards the beach and the existing tourist information office, which is pleasant and inviting.

But (and there is always a but), when examined in the urban context of Margate, the Turner Contemporary is a wasted opportunity for a more complex and thoughtful approach to regeneration and integration of elements into a whole. It seems contemptuous of its surroundings, with three of its four sides having a 'back of house' air. It sits awkwardly oversized in a car park, which doubles as a launching area for the Margate lifeboat. The lifeboat shed is next door, about ten yards away, but Turner Contemporary does not even nod in its direction or acknowledge its presence.  Similarly, the Margate tourist office is just a few steps away, in the same car park, to the West, but the gallery makes no reference to it, no connection with it. On the South side, addressing the road, the disabled access ramp is enclosed by a two-foot deep concrete wall, which cuts off the external cafe area entirely from the street, so it can be seen from the west only, forming an impenetrable barrier between the land and the sea.

These qualities of 'blocking' - the view, the access to the sea, the access from the street - are compounded by the sheer scale of the building. From a distance, it is dramatic and beautiful, like the sea itself, but at street level, human beings are dwarfed by the concrete podium, which soars above their heads as they try to negotiate the badly controlled traffic in the car park which addresses the sea and links to the seafront promenade. The building does not sit quietly, as it ought to, in the patterns of movement through this place, where one can gently drift into the gallery, to the beach, to the chip shop and back again. In scale, in connections between land and sea, in openness and an egalitarian attitude, the Turner Contemporary is entirely at odds with everything else in Margate.

The task of regenerating Margate is an important one, it is depressed, crumbling and has very high levels of drug addiction. Yet physically it has all the ingredients of a fabulous seaside resort. It has flexible and graceful building typologies, a well connected and very urban layout, with streets and squares which trickle down to the sea and a couple of miles of sandy beach. If it had a university, it would be Brighton. In this context, it is hard to see any new, exciting buildings as problematic, particularly as the Turner Contemporary was a bargain at just £17 million. Yet, this building highlights a contempt for the importance of the urban realm, which seems absurd, given that this is a place where the outside is at least as important, if not more so, than the inside.

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