A strip of smalt blue cuts through the ashen sky; a tone of cobalt vivid enough to burn through the clot of clouds. It looks as if a blunted scalpel has torn through a thin grey membrane to reveal some kind of… And then, after a moment, blinking, I realise it is indeed the sky. A great silent blow to the gut – let us call it a kind of bruising. Given time, this mark will become a mere shade, but a trauma remains. It is the kind of phenomenon that cannot be recorded, no photograph could capture it. Instead, it slips through the creases of the iris and becomes seared into the back of the skull.
One question has dug its way in deep, like a splinter: why? Why did such a strong reaction occur? For a few seconds, it was as though seeing the sky through a newborn’s eyes. The air itself seemed to be sucked away through that thin blue streak. And all at once, I could not see enough. Perhaps it was the transience of this “new sight”, which brought about the next gut-punch: to be overcome by both joy and sadness at the same time, for a scene never to be seen again. This is a surprising reaction to something quite so ordinary as the breaking of clouds – after all, it is merely a fissure, the dissolution of liquid droplets. So why then, should it have had this effect?
Having retraced my steps on that particular day, from the silver-grey plinth on which we stood to the peppered walkway of Margate station, it was what we had passed, and pass every day, it is what we do not see anymore. It was that on which we trod, passed our fingers over, and that which at once is the skeleton and envelope of Turner Contemporary.
Never has one material caused such a fragmentation of opinions as concrete. Those who feel visually oppressed and aesthetically offended despise it. But it is also loved by many architects for its pure, utilitarian qualities. It is malleable yet fixed, and it can become pavement or poetry.
Concrete is a complex material, both within its own history of use and its materiality. It is by no means a modern substance: its roots are embedded within the bricks of ancient pyramids, along the Great Wall, and the dome of the Pantheon. But concrete is also the medium through which architects of post-war Brutalism realised their dreams of a utopian society, and where those dreams have now become relics and ruins.
It is made up of cement, water and aggregate of varying proportions, which allow for variations in its density, strength and resistant properties. The cement acts as a binder for the aggregate, but it is the ratio of cement to water, which determines its flowing consistency at the time of casting. The aggregate is a combination of coarse rocks, stones and finer material such as sand; it is this element that gives concrete most of its strength. The plinth of Turner Contemporary is made up of the site’s recycled excavation waste, further situating the concrete, both inside and outside, in its place.
Can concrete be considered as a neutral material? Not as bland and uncharacteristic, but in the sense that this material can become active, allowing the possibility to experience and to see in a different way. It cannot be assumed concrete is always neutral (a concrete sceptic would certainly raise an eyebrow), but given a particular space and the way it lends itself to the making of a place, perhaps it can become so. The reaction to the passing blue splinter is unique to the space in which it was experienced. And so it is this particular kind of concrete, formed in an inimitable way, which marks it out as the medium between a viewer and their senses within Turner Contemporary.
Concrete functions with indifferent sterility, where one’s imagination is given a free space from which to operate. For Barthes, there is the colourful and the colourless. Within this paradigm, the colourful typically signifies wealth and richness, whereas the colourless (i.e. grey) is associated with social uniformity, indistinction and a kind of poverty. Yet this analysis seems too singular, too... Brutalist, even. Turner Contemporary’s concrete skeleton is refined; it is built with a genuine care for the material which is understood by our own hands as we pass them along the smooth cool concrete railings of the stairs. Its greyness absorbs time, it becomes indistinct and then gives way to possibility, to that which has not happened yet. The ‘Not Yet’: it is before meaning. It is in the walls of the stairs, the great plinth, and the ribs that run along the ceiling. The colourless, or the monochrome, is the neutral, made up of subtle shades and traces. Barthes writes in his lecture series, The Neutral, that “the Neutral is the shimmer… whose aspect, perhaps whose meaning, is subtly modified according to the angle of the subject’s gaze.” If one looks closely at a wall of concrete, it is possible to see a thousand little lights, thrown back in different tones; a gift of the aggregate.
And despite its shimmerings, one experiences the concrete envelope of the gallery as a mute material (in the same way one might look upon a twinkling city at night, from the window of an aeroplane). It silences against the roars and howls of the sea and winds – the only reminder of which is the sight of hunched figures outside, shunting sideways, one shoulder forward. The visitor is free to move within a protected space and to conjure the sounds of Turner’s painted seas.
This concrete is a benevolent material; it is non-imposing. It is fixed with an indifference that as Barthes explains “refrains from exerting a function”. Although concrete is often seen as a dense material, compressive of its surroundings as well as of those who experience it, the walls of Turner Contemporary have the ability to disappear – to vanish into the background, and allow space for our thoughts. It does not impose meaning, or possess its surroundings. The walls are quiet, they look away, and as they dissolve, they make way for our senses, allowing for a greater awareness of our existence within the space.
Turner Contemporary proves that an architect can once again reclaim the use of a material without enforcing meaning and without the weight of history or politics. It allows for something ephemeral to burst forth out of the heaviness of concrete. It is a place that is filled, not only with art, but also with the everyday. And its great success is in its ability to turn this seemingly unremarkable material into something special, to let possibility take precedence over the physical. The concrete, shimmering quietly, bows out of the periphery and becomes as indistinct as the last dissolving cirriform cloud.