So, in the aftermath of failing miserably to make the AJ YoungWriters shortlist, I thought I might as well at least share my dreadful writing with a wider (albeit only slightly) audience via the blog. If you can see past the egregiously tasteless animation above that I couldn't resist adding, please see below.
Many places are coloured by their chance associations with people who chose to make the lives or careers there. The Bauhaus will always be weighed down by the expectations of an institution touched by the likes of Mies or Gropius. Penny Lane will never again have the benefit of a permanent street sign due to the plague of pig-tailed Japanese teenagers wielding screwdrivers in search of a memento. Other places descend into caricatures of themselves based on the cumulative influence of a series of powerful personalities, like theme park Paris formed of Hausmann, Napoleon, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulon Rouge. I recently read about ‘Paris Syndrome’ which leads the Japanese embassy to repatriate around 11 of it’s citizens every year due to catastrophic culture shock brought on when the thin veneer of Hausmann picturesque is lifted to reveal, well, the French. Perhaps they should come armed with screwdrivers like their daughters do across the channel.
So what hope, for a place like Margate? Weighed down by a preconception received almost exclusively via Turner of intangible beauty - this notion of ‘unique light’ recurs, mostly in conversation with people who have never been there.
But there is a normative influence on our prejudice, one Tracey Emin.
“What kind of place makes a Tracey Emin?”, might wonder a visitor. Her name was evoked constantly during the fraught process of procuring the Turner Contemporary, a jointly funded venture between the Arts Council, South East England Development Agency, Thanet District Council (by way of donating land) and apparently a contribution from the EU.
Contributing to Kester Rattenbury’s excellent book, ‘This Is Not Architecture’, director Patrick Keiller discuses the need for film makers to understand that experiences from outside of ‘film space’, the viewers preconceptions or prejudices which they bring into the cinema with them, are an essential component of their perception of the celluloid worlds one tries to create. I think if you’re trying to build a new narrative for a town, this is equally a lesson well learnt.
And so we come to the brief for a new gallery in Margate. Fourteen years after the Bilbao Guggenheim opened its doors, and eleven down for the Tate Modern, we see the culture led regeneration model insinuate its lengthy tentacles out through London Bridge toward the Kent Coast. Southwark Council employed Muf to work out how to tell people where the hell Bankside even was before the Tate, and that’s in Zone 1. Look at it now! And Margate has a better beach!
But Margate has much more to battle with outside of it’s ‘film space’. That association with curious light and savagely beautiful seas has been warped by less than elegant decay. This is the archetype of British seaside decline with the Victoriana slowly fading via pitched battles between mods and rockers in the Sixties, skinheads in the Eighties and rising unemployment mostly continually thereafter. Tracey Emin’s public self flagellation through the Nineties and Noughties cements the strange duality of this town in our minds since then.
The brief of achieving better life through architecture has already crushed one practice’s vain endeavour. Watching 3XN grapple with Liverpool City Council over the Maritime Museum debacle, it’s useful to note that Snøhetta have been here before. Answering the call to design an iconic building to hammer ‘Turner’s Margate’ into the sand of our collective consciousness, they designed an elegantly formed (if somewhat crudely conceived) pebble to bob in the sea by the cove. Icons, it seems, are only viable on the Kent Coast at a somewhat cheaper square meter rate than a Guggenheim. One thing Turners paintings tell us with certainty about Margate is that there is no demure bobbing along to be done in that sea. In 2006 the projected cost reportedly topped £50m to protect the Snøhetta design from itself, the architects were removed, and the pebble flung ashore to a more hospitable site. A lawsuit, inevitably, ensued.
Enter, stage left, Mr. Chipperfield.
The train into Margate gives you a starter for ten if you neglected to research the town before your trip. Immediately before the station are the remains of the theme park Dreamland, once and technically still, home to the UK’s oldest wooden roller coaster. It’s the kind of post apocalyptic landscape that architecture students love, and local councillors hate. This is helped, or hindered depending on your outlook, by the looming, impressively brutal Arlington House tower beyond. In counterpoint is the train station itself attributed to a pre-modernism Maxwell Fry, a little neo-Georgian light relief bringing to mind a sunnier beachside past.
Stepping out of the station and onto the seafront, I am almost disappointed to report that the light is certainly very odd indeed. It has an eerie clarity giving everything a strange, somehow fecund saturation of colour.
And there, as you leave the forecourt, is the Turner Contemporary on the horizon. A happy opportunity of geology has it punctuate the winding seaside promenade as it rises and then winds out of view. The safe pair of hands employed to work within a maximum budget of £15m mean that this was always going to be a full stop rather than an exclamation mark but adjacent to the winding, climbing streets of the old town, it’s almost orthogonal geometry is alien enough to be arresting.
The stated aim from the architect was always to be subservient to the setting. The cast glass cladding is designed to pick up that special light, bringing it into the pallette of the building and changing it’s appearance through the day. In this much it is effective, especially at the range of the station. Even from here, however, there is a suspicion that the vertical, shiny cladding rails add a conflicting verticality to the neatly proportioned, endearingly squat volumes. The model of the scheme that we find in the lobby when we get inside gives away this uncharacteristic faux pas, as the cladding is etched without the accidental hierarchy between vertical and horizontal lines that is evident in the realised scheme.
That aside this building is Chipperfield through and through, particularly in terms of it’s interiors. Crisp and elegant details and very much the backdrop, not only for the art but for artfully framed views of Turner’s sea, the same that scuppered Snohetta. The cafe, the most important part clearly of any gallery, is faced towards the ramshackle Margate of Emin, the winding run down streets of the old quarter and the split level shopping area beyond. However, sticking to it’s guns and the new-old Margate to which the modernisers aspire, the new public space defined in the dog leg plan of the gallery is much more self referential than it is outward looking. A perfectly pleasant place, but charged with the desire to step away from one half of this schizophrenic town.
The overall composition of volumes that comprises the building draws on a sort of L.S. Lowry bau-platonic, almost post-modern in inflection, leaning on instantly recognisable simple forms to draw outside connotations into the narrative in much the same way as the simplified classical geometries of Stirling or Venturi. As a lump of architecture with a programme and a physical resolution, it is perfectly pleasant and obviously a part of a noticeable shift in approach toward a freer composition of volumes informed by Chipperfields work at larger scales - see the jaunty planning of the Barcelona City of Justice - which has allowed the practice to investigate the proper interrelationship of forms at a scale which cannot rely on the simple orthogonal compositions on which he has so far relied. Architecture that aspires toward placemaking has never been the forte of a rectilinear modernism emanating from CIAM, despite it’s claims. Chipperfield’s shift to freer composition can clearly be seen in the parallels with his design for the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield.
An artfully framed view of Turner's tempestuous sea brings to mind the restrained photography of Sugimoto
However, the success or failure of this project will not be borne of the elegant resolution of brief, physical context and budget. It will be judged on whether it makes Margate better - a lofty ambition beyond the means of an individual practice, the Sixties told us that.
Without a permanent collection, the success of the gallery will rely on good management and curation, as well as continued investment. The town will require the same.
Most importantly though, the future of Margate might be down to someone who’s not yet born to rewrite the preconceptions that the visitor brings to this narrative, and that person doesn’t seem to be who this building is for. This is for people from elsewhere, drafted in with open wallets, drawn, in theory at least, by the un-iconic icon.
I’ll leave you with a conversation I had with the owner of a local beach goods shop. She liked the building, but wondered why there weren’t any local artists being exhibited there. I looked at the asymmetric haircuts and rolled up chinos wandering past the door and didn’t really want to answer.