Concrete, glass and water

The straight and the skewed: Chipperfield’s two new English art museums.

This is a rare opportunity to compare and contrast two new buildings of the same typology in the same country (north and south), by the same architect, completed virtually simultaneously. I reviewed both separately for The Sunday Times, and those reviews follow. At the end you’ll find my new conclusion on both.

North: The Hepworth Wakefield

Concrete. Raw, jagged concrete. It takes a bit of courage for an architect to resuscitate a material and a style – Brutalism – that got a bit of a bad name in the 1960s and 1970s. Particularly in the normally somewhat damp north of England. Conventionally, concrete and a wet climate are a depressing combination. But unabashed concrete is what you’ll find at the biggest new art gallery to open in Britain since Tate St. Ives in 1993. This is the Hepworth Wakefield.

As it happens, Sixties concrete Brutalism (think London’s mid-60s Hayward Gallery) is roaring back into fashion, or as much of it as hasn’t yet been demolished. It’s historic, now. But let’s be clear: the Hepworth, by the much-garlanded architect Sir David Chipperfield, is not brutalist in quite that 1960s rough-textured sense. They didn’t make buildings that looked like this back then. Oh yes, it’s concrete, walls and roofs alike – smooth concrete with a faint grey-purplish tint to it, not the sort you graze your elbows on. But instead of being determinedly anti-tradition, the Hepworth Wakefield is doing something different. It is on a large island in a river, approached by a bridge. It looks not like a single building, but a hugger-mugger cluster of ten smaller buildings slotted together. This is a modern take on the medieval bastide, or fortified village. Being above all a home for sculpture, not least the sculpture of Wakefield-born Barbara Hepworth, you can also see it as being highly sculptural itself. One of Chipperfield’s models of it was carved out of a single chunk of limestone. That was the look he wanted, a chiselled, solid object.

Not that either of these medieval/sculptural analogies seem to have occurred to the carload of lairy local youths who roared past me, windows open, music pounding, as I stood on a nearby road bridge photographing the building. “You’re looking at sh*t, mate!” one of them hollered as they disappeared in a haze of tyre smoke. Harsh, I felt, these fellow critics. Because although the Hepworth Wakefield looks somewhat alien in its off-pitch, edge-of-town riverside postindustrial setting, one thing it is NOT is sh*t. There’s plenty of that around it, though, along with some fine (if boarded-up) old mills and warehouses.

I recently told you all about Chipperfield’s newly-opened Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate (see below). That is a relatively modest and straightforward building, in the trademark Chipperfield austere manner, with no collection of its own. In contrast, the much larger Hepworth Wakefield cost £35m, has a strong regional art collection and a link to the Tate, and was fiendishly tricky to design. It’s because none of the cluster of rooms is rectangular. Everything is slightly skewed. The roofs tilt this way and that. It is way more ambitious, and more interesting inside, than the Turner Contemporary. The outline of the building is free-form, a giant angular splat. Yet everything fits precisely together like a three-dimensional puzzle. Outside, its frontage rises straight out of the water by a dramatic weir in the River Calder. Why? Because the old mills do that, they are water-buildings. And inside, these various design gymnastics pay off. The sequence of galleries, and the views from one to the other, seems utterly natural.


Many art curators yearn for the ultimate neutral art-box to show work in – soft, even light, walls at precise right angles to each other, no views out or other distractions. That can be very dull. Chipperfield, supported by the gallery’s director Simon Wallis, has not made that kind of space here. He dares to put in large windows at intervals. His skylight strips are at one end of each gallery only, providing what he calls “church light”. This works well in the largest gallery, devoted to a fine collection of Hepworth’s working models donated to the museum by her family. There at the end of the room, bathed in light, is her full-sized final prototype “Winged Figure” of 1961-2. You might know the finished bronze cast pinned like a brooch onto John Lewis in London’s Oxford Street. Here it is a descending angel.

It may be a bit funny-shaped, this art museum, but in a relatively restrained way. This is by no means a normal building, whatever that is, but Chipperfield does not hold with the icon-building mania. He likes to quote the late art critic David Sylvester: “Art has no greater enemy than the architect.” The container, in other words, should not overwhelm the contained. And he says he pondered a long time over the scale of it. “Too big, and it would look industrial. Too small, and it would look like sugar lumps.” This made me appraise it in a different way. Being picky, perhaps it’s just a wee bit dinky, and should be about five per cent bigger all round. The ‘Winged Figure’ feels ever so slightly cramped in the space provided, for instance, though nothing else suffers in this way. The temporary exhibition of works by Eva Rothschild – herself a very architectural sculptor – works beautifully in the spaces. There’s a dialogue between sculptors and artists of different generations that is actively encouraged by Chipperfield’s design.

And finally: we’re used to shiny, glassy, extrovert new cultural palaces, aren’t we? I like the fact that the Hepworth Wakefield is the exact opposite of that. Heavy, thick-walled, non-reflective, non-populist, introvert. And something of a revelation inside. It is not remotely frivolous. It is dead serious.

South: The Turner Contemporary, Margate

“I never stopped loving you” reads the pink neon sign on the old customs building on Margate’s quay. It is right next to the North Kent resort’s new modern art gallery, the £17m Turner Contemporary. The sign is by Tracey Emin, who famously grew up in the town and who officially opened the new gallery. Emin laments the decline of her once-thriving resort, has even called for a Liverpool-style regeneration effort to get it back on its feet. In the meantime, there’s this gleaming new edifice to draw one’s eye away from all the boarded-up shops and arcades. You know it’s going to take a lot more than this, but it’s a start.

Being a Kentish/Sussex lad myself, as a child and teen I went to the south coast resorts – Brighton, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bexhill, Rye. Even then, Margate was seen as a cut below. North Kent was working-class, and we were middle. But I remember one out-of-season family trip there – in particular, the stormy sea crashing exhilaratingly onto the promenade, the part known as the “Golden Mile”. As to going there in summer – why would you? It may have had sand rather than pebbles, but it faced due north. That had to be a handicap for a seaside resort.

But it’s not a handicap for artists. Margate, in the part of Kent known as the Isle of Thanet, may not have quite the luminous light which made Cornwall’s St. Ives an artists’ colony, but when Turner used to stay there with his accommodating landlady Mrs Booth, the storms and the spray and the mist and the bright flat light were what he wanted. “The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all of Europe,” he rhapsodised to Ruskin. The main point, apart from the cordial attentions of Mrs. Booth, was that he could get this luvverly light without really having to travel very far.

North light is favoured by artists, who traditionally align their studios that way. The sawtooth rooflights of factories point the same way for the same reason. And when you first see the Turner Contemporary in the distance across the Golden Mile (you will preferably have arrived by train, one of the new high-speed ones perhaps) that’s what it reminds you of: a group of saw-toothed industrial buildings, facing north. The building is essentially a set of light-scoops. The closer you get, of course, the less industrial it looks. This gallery may be a group of big angular sheds, but they are austerely handsome sheds. And here’s the killer Turner connection: it is built on the site of the long-vanished guesthouse where he stayed. This is the exact view he saw.

Its architect, Sir David Chipperfield, is much garlanded. He’s won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, and the Stirling Prize, and last week also picked up the European Union’s prime architecture prize, the Mies van der Rohe Award. He doesn’t win these things for buildings in Britain, because he mostly gets his commissions overseas, most recently his reconstruction of Berlin’s 19th century Neues Museum. Now, though, he has not one but two galleries to show in his homeland. Hard on the heels of the Turner Contemporary is “The Hepworth” in Wakefield, dedicated to the sculptor Barbara Hepworth who was born there.

Chipperfield doesn’t do too much ‘iconic’ funny shape-making. He likes to stand up for the virtues of the good ordinary. This is not to say that his buildings are, or look, particularly conventional: they have a rarified air that sets them apart. He’s an old-school modernist, he believes in the right-angle and the precise detail. His Turner Contemporary is shaped to maximise the north light and the sea view. The downside is that this exposes more of the building to the winter storms. An earlier design for the Turner Contemporary, a sleek white fin of a thing by Norwegian architects Snohetta, was romantically going to be set partly in the sea, like a lighthouse. This proved tricky, costs soared and the scheme was dropped in 2006. Chipperfield’s follow-up is much more rational, is set higher on dry land, but it is still pretty close to the crashing waves. One hopes those razor-sharp corners to the building, round which the wind moans a little mournfully, can withstand the full onslaught of horizontal water. The building is clad in panels of opaque glass, much thicker than usual for this reason.

Chipperfield doesn’t do jolly, either. He does restrained good taste. In the seaside environment, the gallery feels, well – I could quite see it working as a modernist church. It’s lovely and peaceful inside, the wash of daylight down the walls but (apart from that carefully-framed ground-floor view and some colourful chairs in the cafe that he says he agonised over) it’s not very Margate. Perhaps Chipperfield is being clever, perhaps this is the necessary antidote to Margate, slightly apart, slightly aloof. A place to confess the sins of the flesh and to undertake the penance of High Art.

Inside on the ground floor you have the usual café and shop, a big lobby with a huge window looking right out to sea, and a similarly endowed “events space” alongside it. The idea is that the place – with free entry – will become something of a social centre for the town. The run of galleries is upstairs but for the opening show, “Revealed”, the biggest-impact work is downstairs, framing and refracting the view: Daniel Buren’s “Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape”. The rectangular window is reduced to a giant oculus flanked with sunny deckchair-yellow stripes: the walls to either side are mirrored to multiply the image. It’s a shameless crowd-pleaser and it works: it draws you right through the building to stare out at sea.



Upstairs, the show is a distinctly sparse affair: a handful of artists given a lot of room. There is one Turner, which supposedly acts as the catalyst for the exhibition: an erupting Caribbean volcano, painted from someone else’s sketch and his own fervent imagination in 1815. Kept well away from strong light, it is rather lost, in a corridor-like space. A couple of scattered-graphite pieces by American artist Teresita Fernandez are based on a volcano seen from above. A rotating light work by Conrad Shawcross is mesmerically, gear-whirringly, mechanical. Other artists engage with Margate, such as Ellen Harvey’s fairground-lettering “Arcadia” with its accompanying projected seascape and to-scale reconstruction of Turner’s studio filled with views of Margate. This is no less self-referential than the slightly ghostly suspended spheres and obsessive map-making of Russell Crotty’s “Walking to Dreamland”. Your eyes wander from these works upwards to the high clerestory windows. The light is stealing the show!


Dreamland was the famous Margate theme park, first established under that name in 1920, a Blackpool Pleasure Beach of the south. A short walk along the front from Turner Contemporary, its wooden roller-coaster was sufficiently stately to be called a “scenic railway”. Dreamland closed in 2005, all of its rides were removed apart from the listed Scenic Railway, later badly damaged by arson. Today Dreamland is a partly-cleared site with scaffolded buildings and a few carefully-preserved neon signs. A trust is working with the council to restore and reopen it as a historic theme park, but that looks some way off yet.

The day I went to Margate, Chipperfield was carefully talking down the notion of “cultural regeneration”. One building – his building – couldn’t do it, he said. You need a raft of complementary initiatives to get a decaying town off the floor. He’s right. Dreamland is probably more relevant to Margate’s revival than the Turner Contemporary, but the two together would start to make a difference. Already the old town is starting to show signs of gentrification, with something of a mini-Brighton feel.

So while the town didn’t look nearly as last-resortish as I’d imagined, overall it is not exactly humming, and I couldn’t find a stick of Margate Rock anywhere along the front, just before the Easter holidays. The fastidious new Turner Contemporary can’t possibly turn it all round, but it could just mark something that’s already happening: a change of attitude. In hard times, more people may start to look, like Turner, to the pleasures available closer at hand.

Conclusion: which is better?

Both being Chipperfield buildings, both are architecture of a high order. Both put public, administration and education facilities on the ground floor, and suites of galleries on the first floor. In both cases the gallery roofs and ceilings are monopitch. One – the Turner Contemporary – is relatively small, and pared down to essentials. It comprises a series of orthogonal containers, rational in the extreme but achieving a sense of the ethereal through the manipulation of light. It was 18% cheaper to build per square metre than the more challenging Hepworth Wakefield, which is much larger, richer, more complex, more romantic in its allusions. Its skewed geometry yields a plan like turbine blades around the central core. In Wakefield (a design three years older than the Margate example) Chipperfield is not only being much more ambitious, but achieves his ambition with aplomb.

Final scores out of 10:
Turner Contemporary 6, Hepworth Wakefield 8+

Links

Hepworth Wakefield: www.hepworthwakefield.org
Turner Contemporary: www.turnercontemporary.org
David Chipperfield Architects: davidchipperfield.co.uk
The Sunday Times (subscription site) thesundaytimes.co.uk

Text © Hugh Pearman, photos of Turner Contemporary © Hugh Pearman, photos of Hepworth Wakefield © Iwan Baan and Hugh Pearman. Originally two articles in The Sunday Times, London: on the Turner Contemporary in Margate, 17th April 2011, and on The Hepworth Wakefield, 22nd May 2011.

Bookmark and Share