Of and For Turner Contemporary:
Writings on a Building


By the time of its opening, Turner Contemporary had earned its nickname. But unlike the popular terms of endearment plucked from the heart of the home and bestowed upon the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, et al, the new gallery got stuck with the Shed. Or — as its architect David Chipperfield has quoted his own critics — just a shed. Chipperfield took the dig and built a foundation. He told The Independent: “A nice shed facing the sea with good light that the people of Margate feel is theirs and others will come to see. Anything more than that is wrong. That's what we wanted it to be, just a beautiful shed.” He said it again to Icon and Architects Journal. He now uses the word in passing; it’s become the agreed vocabulary.

A shed is a noun with a built-in adjective: slight. As in, according to the OED, “a slight structure built for shelter or storage, or for use as a workshop”. In his London studio, Chipperfield meets guests and colleagues at a communal table, under exposed pipework, wearing his simple uniform of black roll neck and slim white jeans. Here, a certain slightness is surely a criterion.

“What’s this… Slough-on-Sea?”, lambasted Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard, in his usual tone of the ornery passed off as the acerbic. Sewell described an "abrasive assault" of super-industrial sheds. Such a thing "might be unnoticeable on the fringe of Heathrow or the outskirts of Slough, but in poor old Margate its featureless and gleaming bulk is alien, brutal and bleak. Nothing about it announces a benign purpose, nothing speaks of art and welcome; its only invitation is to the local graffitisti.”

Walking toward it from the train station, the building appeared to me like a destination, the punctuation at the end of a lethargic seafront, not an exclamation mark, but an ellipses… It’s hard for me to imagine the scene without it. (I later tried putting my thumb over it in images.) In all honesty, it could be a cluster of boat sheds, even a distribution centre. But perhaps I’ve already aestheticised that idiom: in the wake of the films of Patrick Keiller, I’m prone to reading such structures with an internal voice-over, ruminative and edged in irony.

Sewell goes on to unpick his own contention. “It could be argued that alien is what Turner Contemporary has been compelled to be, in that the existing architecture of the seafront is too derivative and commonplace to be allowed to influence a new building designed to initiate the transformation of a town.” His extended rant ends with him half-wishing either pox or bomb upon the whole of Margate. So much for benign and welcoming.

He also somehow misses the long view. Turner + Contemporary is not a contradiction in terms. Turner, it is often noted, was born in the age of sail and died in the age of steam. His paintings depict not just the sublime of nature, but the structures erected to withstand its ferocity. Historian Simon Schama has pointed to The Fighting Temeraire (1839), the painting voted Britain’s most popular, with its depiction of an old warship being dragged offstage by a robust young tug. In Schama’s view, it is not an elegy. He suggests that the painting functioned to “actually make people feel good about the fact that they weren’t just leaning on wonderful memories of faded glory. The faded glory was being pulled on by an equally tough, glorious, solid-back, energised future.” David Blayney Brown, the Turner curator at Tate, agrees that the artist was “absolutely a chronicler of his times, interested in everything going on around him. When Turner paints industry, he does paint it in an unjudgemental way, and I don’t think that kind of romantic nostalgia we tend to get obsessed with nowadays really occurred to Turner at all.”

These days, the architectural icons of the Kentish coastline include the sea forts at Red Sands, the nuclear plant at Dungeness and, until their recent demolition, the cooling towers of the Richborough Power Station. The Shingle House in Dungeness is notably utilitarian, looking rather like a tar black miniature of Turner Contemporary. (It was designed by Scottish group NORD, whose other works include a sawmill extension and the primary substation at the 2012 Olympic park.) These are the sights of a working landscape, with forms that suggest a practical, rather British relationship with the sea.

But Turner Contemporary isn’t an actual industrial facility, one of the ‘anonymous sculptures’ photographed by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Does this distinction between form and function suggest a kind of understated dishonesty? I had been thinking this over when I heard a recording of Dylan Thomas. He was reciting: “…we used to wander whistling through the packed streets, stale as station sandwiches, round the impressive gasworks and the slaughter house, past by the blackened monuments and the museum that should have been in a museum.” Some 70 years later, I can imagine the functions of such structures modified: the gasworks repurposed as a cultural venue, the slaughter house now a vegetarian restaurant, the museum itself a relic. In fact, the neo-classical building the author was referencing, the Swansea Museum, built in 1841, is now a two minute walk away from the National Waterfront Museum — a Grade II listed warehouse renovated and expanded with glass and Welsh slate. Perhaps what we expect from new cultural institutions is something more unassuming — an act of deference, a shell.

Anything more would be wrong. The statement raises questions about the responsibility of a building, its ability to be right, the notion that it must earn its keep. I suspect that maybe the potential wrongness is less about some moral trespass than irrelevance. If Turner Contemporary is not a working structure in the traditional sense, it instead suggests new modes of productivity. Just as it stands stoically between land and sea, it positions itself sensibly in the evolution from manufacturing to service economy. The conversion of industrial structures into art spaces has become a norm: Tate Modern is a looming example, and Margate has its own — Limbo, a gallery housed in a former electrical substation. There’s a certain preemptive logic in borrowing this functional sensibility.

The seminal postmodern text Learning from Las Vegas distinguishes two types of buildings. The duck — named for a duck-shaped drive-in restaurant — is a building that serves as its own icon. Space, structure and programme are subsumed into an overall symbolic form — suggesting, in line with a heroic Modernism, “reformist-progressive social and industrial aims that it could seldom achieve in reality.” On the other hand, the decorated shed is a conventional shelter that applies symbolic ornament independently — a warehouse trussed up with outsize signage or the facade of an imitation palazzo.

Historian Hal Foster has looked at Frank Gehry and suggested that his buildings collapse the binary, resulting in a decorated duck. Foster contends, “As his ‘decorated ducks’ expanded in scale — as Gehry slouched toward Bilbao — so did the liabilities of this combination, for it risked the problematic aspects of both modern and postmodern architectures: the willful monumentality of the first and the faux populism of the second.” The Gehry model, with its disconnection between skin and structure, leads to a separation of building from site, destinations not so much surprising as mystifying, “a strained disorientation that is frequently mistaken for an Architectural Sublime.” The Guggenheim Bilbao sings loudly, with a lot of vibrato. It has set one model for what regeneration looks like, at least symbolically.

The logical conclusion is to posit Turner Contemporary as an ‘undecorated shed’. Turner Contemporary resists flourish and overt signposting. Its skin elaborates only in its suggestion of transparency. The low-iron glass sits well with the light and withstands the ravages of the sea. The building’s most remarkable design feature is an absence — its series of windows, which invite in the light and the landscape.

In Margate, Chipperfield has built a gallery, not created a spectacle. It is an English building facing the North Sea. It gently brightens, rather than fights against, a stretch of coastline whose charms are melancholic, even bleak. I’m reminded of Dylan Thomas and his “ugly, lovely town (or so it was and is to me), crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore…” Turner Contemporary makes a discreet gesture. It is not atmospheric, but rather it is a part of the atmosphere.