20 October 2017

Architecture in Focus – Turner Contemporary

By Engaging Places | 7 October 2014

JMW Turner was one of England’s greatest artists – a master at capturing light and impressions of land and sea long before the group of painters known as the Impressionists displayed their work. He was sent to school in East Kent, returned when he was 21 to sketch the landscape, and in his forties became a frequent visitor to the area, staying at a local guest house. Now a gallery stands on the site of that guest house, and its design pays homage to the extraordinary light seen in this part of the coast - a light which inspired over one hundred of Turner’s paintings.

Inside a large modern building with very tall windows looking out to sea
Inside the Turner Contemporary Copyright Nick Reynolds, Flickr.com
Turner described the light here as 'the loveliest in Europe'. So capturing that special light gave the architect, David Chipperfield, a focus for the development of his design. He describes the light inside the studio-like gallery as 'fantastic…the best his firm has done'. One leading critic has called the space 'among the best rooms for art I have seen in the UK'.

The building, which is on the seafront, is set on a plinth to protect it against flooding, and is made of 6 interlocking rectangles. From a distance they almost resemble boat sheds, but once you are closer you can see that they are more like a series of enormous artist's studios. The roof has been designed to let the maximum amount of northern light into the gallery spaces on the first floor level, and the ground floor has huge windows that provide spectacular views of the sea as well as flooding the area with that characteristic northern light.

Quirky facts

1. The  original design for the gallery, by other architects from Norway and Britain, consisted of a dramatic shell-like building set right on the edge of the seafront, partly in the water. It had to be abandoned after it became clear that it would not stand up to the force of the tides.

2. Over 8,000 people were involved in the consultation process about the new gallery, which was opened on 16th April by musician Jools Holland and local artist Tracey Emin.

Building Highlights

1. The gallery is clad in opaque white glass. The choice of this material was influenced by the seafront setting and the light. This opaque glass allows the building to reflect the sea, the sky and the changing conditions of the light.

2. The roofs are single pitch and the clerestory windows allow the northern light to enter and illuminate the display spaces. (A clerestory is a high wall with a band of narrow windows along the very top. The clerestory wall usually rises above adjoining roofs. Originally the term clerestory - pronounced clear story - referred to the upper level of a church or cathedral).

3. The northern light is augmented by diffused southern light that comes into the building at an angle.

4. The floors are made of polished concrete.

5. The building cost £17.5m.

6. A new courtyard outside creates a public plaza, and the seamless transition into the lobby reinforces the welcoming nature of the gallery – and the feeling that this is a public space.

The exterior of a large modern building on the seafront in Margate
The Turner Contemporary in Margate Copyright Turner Contemporary
Using Turner Contemporary as a Teaching Resource

Light is the dominant theme of the gallery, and this theme lends itself to a range of teaching activities for all key stages. Some of the activities below can be used at different key stages.

Key Stage 1 - General
1. Talk to the class about the gallery and where the windows are situated.  Ask them to draw each wall of their classroom – concentrating on the windows.  
2. Discuss windows generally with the class. Why do we have them? (get them to think of as many reasons as they possibly can). What is a useful window? What is a poorly-designed window? Why? 

Key Stage 2 – Art and Design
1. On a sunny day get the class to look at the light that is coming in through their classroom windows at different times of the day. Discuss with them why the light changes. Put some pictures on a board near the window. Ask the class to notice what happens to them when the light changes.
2. Ask the class to draw pictures of the windows in the room where they sleep. Can they remember what the light is like on a sunny day at different times of the day? Get them to draw what they think it is like and then to check their drawings at home later to see how accurate they were.

Key Stage 3 – Design and English
1. Ask the class to think about their school. Which part of the school do they think has the best light, bearing in mind what that area is used for? Why?  
2. Twice a year the clocks are changed to make the best use of daylight, but this change often leads to debate in the media. Ask the class to consider the arguments both for and against changing the clocks.

Key Stage 4 – Science and Design
1. Looking at the Turner Contemporary Gallery, ask the class to list the different challenges that the architects had to address with this particular location and how they tackled the challenges.
2. Discuss the appearance of the gallery. Why are the walls white? Why is light from the North so important to the gallery? What happens when things are exposed to bright sunlight for long periods of time?

Visitor Information

Turner Contemporary

01843 233 000

Admission to the gallery is free.
Opening times:
Monday: closed (open on Bank Holiday Mondays 10-7)
Tuesday to Thursday: 10-7
Friday: 10-10
Saturday and Sunday: 10-7


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