Of and For Turner Contemporary:
Writings on a Building

Volume

There was something about the horizon the day we arrived in Margate. We were so excited to see the sea again, wide and open and far away from London. It looked strange, dissolved. We saw it from the train. We commented on it, but didn’t really characterise it. It looked atomised maybe, but in a smudged, congealed way. A radiantly dim mass of some sort, draped from the sky, as if the sky and the sea were tacked together. The light pouring out. The sea was still and silvery grey. There was a feeling of anticipation. Perhaps just for the overcast weather to disappear.

The horizon produces something. A soft perspective, a certain mood. When you feel drawn towards the sea you really feel drawn towards the horizon. The mood of the horizon was suggestive that day. What will the sea bring.

The horizon is the only infinite thing on Earth. It is nothing but an optical border between Earth and space. It doesn’t actually exist.

The American landscape artist James Turrell talks about how he erases the gradation near the horizon. The blueness from the sky is turned into ‘something else’, something artificial, but it is still sky.

If you go to a high altitude where it is cold, you see sky that is such crisp blue you feel that you could cut it and put it in cubes. That is the kind of sky I want, and I have been able to get it by selecting the altitude. There are gradations near the horizon where the blue is lighter, and then gradually, toward the zenith, it gets deep.1

There is a similar nature vs. non-nature relation to Turner Contemporary, or a ‘beyond-nature’: an amplification, exceeding. Something idealistic, radical and strong-willed. An artificial, crisp cube cut out from the sky. The razor-sharp building seems to come from a place far from nature and yet there is something animated and organic about it: something that responds to nature and then surpasses it. The roof is shaped as a response to the weather conditions, but it seems resistant.

We walked from the train station to the gallery. We passed a giant jagged tower which made the road we followed feel like a passage. The grey cloudy weather had begun to vaporise. Turner Contemporary materialised as a compressed skyline. I noticed the roof. I couldn’t quite determine the mood of the building, in which direction it was looking: away from or out to the sea.

The roof sloped downwards away from the sea which made the building look withdrawn and sheltered, wearing a protective shell, having its back to the sea.

The roof sloped upwards facing the seashore, fearless and fully exposed, like a chest or a raised hand: this far but not further. The luminous vertical aluminium strips across the building, rejecting.

The water hollowed the stone, the wind dispersed the water, the stone stopped the wind. Water and wind and stone.2

The anticipation of the horizon is the anticipation of a discontinuity, a contingency. What will the sea bring, or take.

In her book 'The Sea Around Us', the American marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson talks about the ceaseless movement of the sea, its restlessness: “The floor of the deep sea is shaped by racing turbidity currents or mud flows that pour down the slopes of the ocean basins at high speed. Far from being isolated from the continents and the shallow seas that surround them, the abyssal plains are now known to receive sediments from the margins of the continents.”

Erosion is the force by which the sea seeks to balance itself. Nature wants equilibrium. The sea seeks ‘base level’, which is the lowest point to which a stream can erode: “an imaginary extension of sea-level under the land”.3 Base level is the point of departure, where the sea wants to be. The floor of the sea imagines its extension under land. The sea looks at the shore.

We went into Turner Contemporary. The sea was there as an occasional image behind the huge windows. The weather cleared up after an hour or so. The sky turned bright and blue and cloudless. After walking around in the gallery we went outside again. It was one of those first sensational days of spring and it was a good thing to spend it by the seaside. We walked around the white glass-covered building, encased in a protruding frame of aluminium strips reflecting the sun, and they were blindingly white that day. The building looked luminous and monumental and supreme. We had forgotten about the odd misty horizon.

Later I remembered the cloudy arrival in Margate and I thought of Turner and his brushstrokes. I thought of the roof. The long sides of the acute angles are pointing outwards, but they are introverted as well, feelers full of awareness, observant and alert.

A setback clerestory window allows skylight to fall from above without shadow. The rooflights are covered by a translucent surface to diffuse the light. The lighting of Turner Contemporary is carefully composed of daylight and artificial light. The artificial light is meant to reinforce the natural setting.

The building is aware of its external energies. The sea as a giant frontier, an expanse held together by currents and tides and tectonic forces. The sky and the wind and the sun. The horizon as the place where things come into existence. Like an impressionist receptor, the building registers the changes. Impressionism: the image emerges through the changing light, the changing mood in nature, the change in volume.

The blueness of the sky is created when sunlight penetrates the atmosphere. The gases and particles in the air scatter the light in all directions, especially the blue light because it consists of short waves. The sky seems blue because of the impact of the atmosphere.

Turner Contemporary materialises as a white, glowing volume brought to life by its surroundings. In the bright midday sun it burst with glass, aluminium and light, erected by the sky and the sea. A crisp cube cut out from the sky. Blue in the same way the sky is blue: as a modification.

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