Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Margate is a place that could do with a bit of help. Its harbour front and stone pier feel neglected as well as disjointed from the rest of the town, while the rest of the sea front is dominated by amusement arcades and unloved apartment buildings, with optimistic names like The Arcadian. One of its few claims to fame is that Tracey Emin grew up here. But there are now signs of health and hope. At last Margate looks set to have a landmark new cultural institution – Turner Contemporary – designed by one of Britain's most respected architects, David Chipperfield.

If you don't know the name, it might be because so much of Chipperfield's work has been abroad for the last decade. There was the River and Rowing Museum in Henley back in 1987 and more recently a new London studio for sculptor Antony Gormley, but the key projects have been in America, Germany and beyond, with David Chipperfield Architects holding offices in Milan and Berlin as well as London. His practice has just picked up two RIBA European Awards for their Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany, and their much lauded America's Cup Building in Valencia.

But now, in a sense, Chipperfield is coming home. He has just presented his working designs for the new 17.4m Turner Contemporary gallery, on a sea front site near to the pier, and plans are moving ahead to get the building done by 2010. Margate and its local politicians are clearly pinning high hopes on the building, not just as a cultural landmark but as a catalyst for regeneration.

"It's much more satisfying to be working at home in your own culture," says Chipperfield, "although the opportunities to work on cultural projects in England are not that many. But in Margate you have people involved in the Turner project saying that this part of the world really needs a cultural institution like this and I think they are right to set their ambitions high.

"Projects like this do have an influence on a community and change the ethos and atmosphere of a place. At the moment you go to Margate and think it's all about amusement arcades but if you have Turner Contemporary people will think about the town in a different way. It doesn't take much. I don't think one should do these kinds of projects just because they regenerate – they should be done for their own sake – but there is an inevitable regeneration spin off and for those who might need more convincing that's a powerful statement."

Margate has been waiting for Turner Contemporary to get off the ground since 2001, when the idea of a gallery celebrating the work of JMW Turner, but also showing work by other artists, was first born. Turner went to school in Margate for a time and then returned regularly to paint, staying at a lodging house close to the harbour, telling John Ruskin that the skies were the 'loveliest in all Europe'. Architects Snohetta and Spence Associates won the original Turner Contemporary design competition with a brave, beautiful but ultimately unrealistic design positioned towards the end of Margate's stone pier. The projected costs of realising this dream building – highly vulnerable to the sea and the elements – climbed to around 40m before the plug was pulled in early 2006 and a new competition launched, won by Chipperfield.

Chipperfield's building will be positioned on a less exposed site, set further back from the sea but still close to the harbour walls. It's a site with its own problems, including a lifeboat access track running right alongside, as well as the heavy bulk of Fort Hill and a main road separating it from the rest of Margate. But it is well positioned to take advantage of the sea and harbour views, which will be maximised in Chipperfield's three storey design, raised up on a two metre high platform to protect the building from any threat of sea swell flooding. The building will have public spaces on the raised ground floor, including a plaza and cafe benefiting from views of the sea. There will be some gallery space above on the first floor, including a large balcony viewing platform capable of holding sculpture, while key gallery spaces are situated on the upper level.

"It's a site that's both blessed and difficult," says Chipperfield. "It's blessed because we couldn't have a more beautiful view of the sea but then we are also naked to the elements. It's not easy and it is separated from the rest of Margate. The question is how you get over these things and encourage the public to come across the threshold of this building, this cultural community centre, which will be highly visible from the town."

Turner Contemporary is one of many Chipperfield projects around the world that have dealt with the hinterland – or frayed edge – between land and sea, attempting to reconnect a community back to former industrial and port areas by the waterside. It's true of Chipperfield's Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi and of the America's Cup Building, situated in Valencia's old port, now playing host to the America's Cup.

The America's Cup Building is a centrepiece viewing and hospitality building, a series of dramatic cantilevered decks or platforms with the lightest of glass pavilions between each floor. It's a good exemplar of Chipperfield's belief in a kind of sophisticated simplicity, reducing each building down to a handful of key elements and materials. It has a marine, aerodynamic quality but with a subtlety to its deck and liner references.

"We are trying to make something that's abstract and contemporary on the one hand but completely inspired by its own task and function and that's what we strive for," says Chipperfield. "With the America's Cup Building, I thought if you are spending time in Valencia by the water, in the middle of summer, you will want to be on a balcony or a deck and instead of adding balconies to a building, I've tried to make the whole building into a series of balconies."

Chipperfield's office is busy with a host of new cultural projects – nearly all won through international competitions – from Barcelona to Venice to Alaska. But it's Margate and another home grown projects, the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, that will be mostly keenly followed in the UK. Dedicated to Wakefield-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth, the 26m Gallery has just started on site and will open in 2009.

"What's common to both Margate and Wakefield are very bold local authorities," Chipperfield says. "You need people in these places saying that while there might be a hundred reasons not to do these things and ten reasons to go ahead, the ten outweigh the rest. You need strong people like that and it is refreshing to be working in places like Margate and Wakefield alongside these people who really believe in what they are doing."


1) RIVER & ROWING MUSEUM, Henley, 1987
Contemporary timber buildings, inspired by vernacular boat houses and barns.

2) MUSEUM OF MODERN LITERATURE, Marbach am Neckar, Germany, 2006.
Topped by a pavilion with views across the landscape. Winner of a RIBA European Award.

Copper and glass clad community building as part of a wider regeneration scheme.

4) PRIVATE HOUSE IN CORRUBEDO, Galicia, Spain, 2002.
Chipperfield's own contemporary home from home, making the most of connections to the sea.

5) FIGGE ART MUSEUM, Davenport, Iowa, 2005.
New riverside museum designed as a glass monolith with contrasting slabs of opaque and transparent glass.