I thought that there was nothing special about Turner Contemporary when I first saw it. It didn’t speak to me or to its surroundings. It seemed aloof and arrogant; bland. I had to write about it but I felt I had nothing to say.
I went a second time, staying overnight, so as to experience it at different times of the day. I walked around the gallery; viewing it from different angles. But the longer I looked, the louder the silence grew.
Sitting some distance from the gallery, on a bench at the beach, my mind exhausted with the effort to make some sense of what I was looking at, I realised that the building does not have a message. Just like the sea, all it had to offer in that moment was its breathing presence. And in its presence I was breathing differently.
“Without being there, how do you know it works?” David Chipperfield said to us when we were gathered at his London office. “Voyeuristic ideas of architecture,” he added, “reflect our lack of confidence in experience.” It was for this purpose that I returned to Margate.
In architecture, experience is the movement of people around and through a building. The experience of its spatial presence and materiality, along with the engagement of the eye and the body, is what gives architecture its performative capacity. Architecture performs in the sense of the function it serves, it is responsive to the site, to the quality of the space. This engagement with a site can be seen as physical movement in a determinate space, whose characteristics – energy and quality – are influenced by its surroundings.
I spent the morning walking around the town, asking people about their experience of Turner Contemporary. The gallery evoked a range of reactions and readings. In most cases, they weren’t “fond of it” but had grown “used to it”’ An “ice factory” to one, “ghastly” in the view of another, and a “tin box” according to a fierce old lady I encountered.
Some questioned the need for an art gallery to begin with, but even those who agreed with it in principle, thought that the architecture was plain and disappointing. So I asked them, what had they expected? To go by public taste, the result would have been a structure partially submerged in water, looking something like a “whale” or a “lobster”.
At that point, the opinions of those I met were not helping. Evidently there was a contradiction, since those who disliked the building had been visiting it nonetheless.
The gallery, which at first doesn’t seem to quite fit, in fact gives a fresh lease of life to the quaint charm of Margate. The contemporary glass clad structure, which looks almost futuristic in its context, evokes the nostalgia of a traditional British coastline, and it is Margate that stands out as a living museum next to the gallery.
On Turner Contemporary’s launch, Austrian artist Willi Dorner brought his performance, ‘Bodies in Urban Spaces’, to Margate. His brightly clad performers ran around town to place their bodies in awkward acrobatic postures within selected spots. The intention of this trail was to point out the functional structures of the town and to highlight possibilities and restrictions placed on peoples’ movement. Audiences were at first irritated: in one of the videos of the performance posted online, a passer by calls them “bloody weirdos”. But by looking at strangers perform the town, engaging their bodies in unusual manners with the architecture, viewers were prompted to reflect on their surroundings. This was an invitation to the residents to walk their own streets afresh and establish a stronger relationship to their town.
Similarly, sitting in an awkward interstice between the sea and the town, Turner Contemporary negotiates its relationship with the two. The strong geometry of its etched glass skin melts into the hues of a north facing sea, an invisible horizon, and its enchanting light. Visitors, whether they agree with the design and form of the building or not, are drawn in by its presence.
I then went on to ask the same people I had met that day to sketch a memory map of the gallery, explaining how they moved through the space. Most were more comfortable giving a verbal description and with the exception of a few, no one identified any spatial markers. Instead they seemed to have navigated from artwork to artwork. They recalled moving through the interior spaces by sequentially giving names or descriptions of the pieces they saw.
My notes read something like this: I saw The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains before Constable’s Malvern Hall in Warwickshire. Then Down Deep beneath the Sea with Tracey Emin I went into the Cabinet of Curiosities, passing “those blackjack sculptures” projected into the Perfect Third... and so on.
In May 2014, the Siobhan Davies Dance Company returned to Turner Contemporary for their second performance at the gallery, Manual. The London based contemporary dance organisation, founded by dancer and choreographer Siobhan Davies, is known for their thought-provoking movement installations. For this particular performance they collaborated with dance artist Helka Kaski. Kaski approached the visitors with a simple instruction: “If I lie down on the floor, I’d like you to tell me how to stand up.” The extraordinarily simple idea demonstrates – more than any how-to in an instruction manual – how movements from our daily lives, which appear easy at first, are profoundly complex. We get up from our beds everyday, yet we are hardly conscious of the muscles at work in this action. When I first learnt about the performance I lay down to figure exactly how it is that I get up. But even while I consciously observed my body’s movements I was never entirely sure if at a given point it was my wrist or the hip bone that I rested my weight on.
These actions are “archived within our own bodies”, as Davies writes. The performance “meticulously dismantles their timing and order and invites visitors to notice stillness and movement in the artworks around them.”
The architecture of Turner Contemporary does something similarly complex. The space quietly dissolves in the background as we enjoy a seamless walk through the galleries, noticing only the artwork and the amazing views of the sea. Moving through the spaces we are unaware of the complex engineering decisions that shape our experience.
Gallery spaces are designed to highlight the artwork, but here Chipperfield faced a unique challenge of balancing natural light with the artificial. Views of the sea were of great importance to Turner Contemporary, which meant allowing lots of natural light into the galleries. This provided a good opportunity to keep the space naturally lit, but also put the artwork at risk in exposing it to direct light. The architect’s solution was the precisely calculated skylights and clerestory windows, which baffle the sunlight, adding colour and warmth to the white spaces of the gallery; a quality that enriches our experience, but like the movements from Davies’s Manual the meticulous workings of which remain covert.
The engineering at work in Turner Contemporary is experiential, rather than overtly technological. In response to ongoing transformations in technology, architecture at times retains its performative efficiency by adapting dynamic and transient forms. Turner Contemporary, however, responds to the ephemeral condition of technology with a minimalist elegance, where materials are configured to express their individual character. The opaque white glass clad on the exterior imbibes the aura of the sea and the unique light of its north aspect is carried inside the spartan rooms, which constantly negotiate their spatial character with the artwork. While the building stands still, the effect of the changing light breathes life into it, keeping it permanently in movement.
Sitting on that bench on the Margate beachfront, I was finally able to appreciate Turner Contemporary when I found myself breathing at the same pace as its architecture did. Its presence was like the daily life movements from Siobhan Davies’ choreography, an architectural gesture of efficiency, while the mono-pitched roof offers the Victorian beachfront of Margate a hat-tipping gesture of respect.