Of and For Turner Contemporary:
Writings on a Building


On Margate sands
I can connect
Nothing with nothing
TS Eliot, The Waste Land

Turner Contemporary is positioned between Margate and the North Sea. A main road bisects it from the town, but there is regular, fighting contact with the tide (a battle which duly reconnects it to the seaside settlement). The secure concrete plinth on which the gallery is perched will prevent the building pickling in brine, especially with every north eastern storm that threatens to flood this dramatically exposed location. Pitched zinc roofing weathers saline air and seagull shit while the white, glass panel façade reflects the rare north light. This skin can, according to Holger Mattes, the building’s project architect with David Chipperfield Architects, sustain a force of wind and water similar to that of a bomb exploding. Only 20 meters and a public pathway diffuse this oomph from the gallery – David Chipperfield himself remarked, “the line that defines the land and water is an ambiguous one”.

When one material or space comes close to another, there is always some form of gap. Inside Turner Contemporary, many have been formed as climatic mediators between the harsh outside and the ultra-regulated museum interior. In the time it takes for a visitor to cross the entrance, the first set of sliding doors are closing and their approach opens the second, minimising the exchange of one climate for another. Outside, behind the two-sheet-thick, heat-strengthened, low-iron glass cladding, another gap through which air and water can pass, but not light. It is nearly impossible to see the building’s true complexion: a standard, corrosion resistant aluminium system.

Which is not to say a gap is just a distance, but can be a difference in things. White walls and a polished concrete floor, for example. Only, the architects have further inserted a silhouette on these planes, the so-called ‘shadow gap’, running along the bottom of each wall to form a perfect recess barely an inch off the ground and not much further back. An anti-skirting, this space serves multiple functions, like hiding the ventilation for air-conditioning. It also solves a problem of finishing. By deleting rather than introducing a third element to cover a butt, there is just no butting. The floor – which in one kind of light really does look like like a roiling sea as seen from above – flows under the wall.

Similarly, around the edges of doors and windows, there is an unassuming regular space rather than an attempt at an (inevitably irregular) union of surfaces. Listing lacuna inside of the gallery becomes compulsive: the gas-filled void between panes in double-glazed windows, the groove that edges each stair, another which reveals itself to the tips of your fingers on the underside of the skin-smooth, concrete banister... In each case, these alignments occur with such precision there is the temptation for a mathematical definition: one that can describe no line meeting, or materials not falling together. The building behaves asymptotically.

On the second floor of the gallery, a balcony positions you at the mid-point of a double-story window, allowing you to see further out into the sea. This gap is a breather, or a pause that is not waiting. The most distant part of the sea visible from here is called the offing. It’s a place that moves, sharpens, dissolves while you look at it. Sometimes it disappears altogether because your eye cannot hold onto the distance or atmosphere of that place for long. Turner, the gallery’s eponymous hero and sometime Margate resident, was celebrated for his depiction of the offing, over which he produced moving distinctions between sky and sea. The space he impressed was a climatic milieu – a gap between elements and weathers that reflected the scientific and meteorological avant-garde. He painted many of these scenes in Margate and the area of Thanet above which, every visitor is reminded, he thought the skies quite the “loveliest”. Proving that the sky is capable of conjuring something less genteel, construction stopped while the wind worked in the early days of the building project. Cranes should not operate in such harsh conditions and, no doubt, this was a very real reminder to everyone concerned as to what being air-conditioned might really mean. “Shake your building”, suggests Chipperfield. “If the wind blew hard, what would be left? The best bit, probably.” Turner Contemporary was completed in time and each square root of its 2,730 meters remains accounted for – which must say something of materials or confidence, or both.

But there are breaches. Exchanges from inside to outside that can't be checked though the effects are closely monitored. At the top of some stairs, at the back of the building, a door that is rarely opened synchronises with that of the sliding doors at the gallery's entry. In total contrast to the inside regulation of air and area, the world outside is loud and now the space between becomes a flue and through it, a sounding. The draught behaves like light finding every gape, perforation, crack to slip along so that all at once, these gaps are not just visible, they're singing. Meanwhile, somewhere inside a room with paintings, the humidity and temperature monitors adjust.

When a work of art is displayed outside of the collection it belongs to, it takes a very particular atmosphere with it. A symptom of preservation is a neutralisation that relocates the artwork not only from the time in which it was created, but the climate. The legal conditions of loaning art are, in part, based on the environmental conditions of the place in which it will be exhibited. The longevity of these works depends upon it. Turner himself worked closely with scientists of his day on methods to enhance and prolong the colour of his pigments; at Turner Contemporary, the specific choice of the building’s blocks is equally future-minded. Besides the impact tests and the long list of rejected materials considered for the museum’s exterior – including enamelled glass, powder-coated metal, timber cladding, stone, concrete, ceramic tiles, plastic – the architects’ concern was that the white of the building should endure. “How would its façade respond to the changing and sometimes dramatic light Turner found so enchanting?” This question influenced early discussions amongst the architects, recalled Mattes, and provoked the poetic “we wanted a white building that breathes the light”.

Though natural light is damaging to the likes of a Turner painting, the gallery admits it wherever possible. The staggered apexes of some of the wedged roofs have clerestory windows that allow indirect but effective illumination. Light is the only element permitted to penetrate the gallery walls, albeit filtered to 1% of its UV spectrum. Some spaces just “can’t take the daylight,” confirms Chipperfield.

A gap might also be a contrast, as in the light from one room to the next or the colour of the building between the time entering and exiting the museum. In this later hue, now imbued with the Turnerian treatment, the shiny floor might reflect something less like the sea and more the rolling over of clouds, with scuffs and scuds indeterminate from the other. Irregardless, the shadow-gap draws a perfect outline of each room.