Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Chippo and chips on the beach at Margate

To Margate on a hot and sunny bank holiday Monday to see the newly opened Turner Contemporary (no 'The', no 'Gallery'), designed by architect of the moment David Chipperfield ('Chippo' to the Architects' Journal).

Chipperfield's project replaced a more ambitious and more obviously 'iconic' proposal by Norwegian architects Snøhetta for a new pebble-shaped gallery building rising out of the water just off the stone pier - a perfect reflection, one might think with hindsight, of pre-credit crunch extravagance (the pebble scheme was abandoned amidst stories of spiralling costs) giving way to the 'new austerity', of which Chippo's architecture is said to be representative.

Some reviews have expressed disappointment with the building's reticence, but I found the approach refreshing. Along the coast at Sheerness is a famous example of the 'Functional Tradition' from which so many English architects have drawn inspiration - the 1850s Boat Store, built for the Admiralty. One could place Chipperfield's building in the tradition of 'knowing' architecture inspired by that earlier tradition - doing what is appropriate, in this case without the rhetoric found in some of his cultural projects abroad. His sketch diagram of the project, available as a postcard in its shop, is so banal as to make you wonder just how hard architecture can be. But if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

On our visit a lively and varied crowd were enjoying themselves in the galleries and social spaces inside and outside. It felt like it could become a real local institution, living up to the implication of the website's description of Turner Contemporary as an organisation rather than a gallery. Margate has its problems, which are plain to see on a day trip, but you don't need to agonize about whether or not there could ever be a 'Bilbao effect' here, to have an optimistic view of the potential for a place like this to help a town like this improve itself.

At the other end of the beach there is a surprising work by another well known architect - a Beaux Arts 1920s railway station designed by a young Maxwell Fry, later a prominent purveyor of white modernism. Its listing description, more colourfully than many such, says 'Fry went on to loudly embrace the international modern style, one of the first native-born architects to do so in England. He later became coy about his years with Southern Railways.'

If you sailed more or less due north from here across the Thames estuary, you would come to Felixstowe where last year I came across a similar case - but in reverse - of a tyro work showing stylistic interests rather different from what you might expect - the young classicist-to-be Raymond Erith involved, also in the 1920s, in a strikingly modern church design.

Nothing wrong with changing your mind. But the architectural profession tends to rather tribal stylistic allegiances, now as then, so stories like this are particularly pleasing.

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