In 2009 Snøhetta paid £6 million to Kent County Council over the failure to keep the Turner Contemporary costs under control. The project, won by competition in 2001 had been estimated at £7.4 million but had gone up to £25 million by 2006 when the project was cancelled.
It was a lovely project: a great wooden shell on the water: like all Snøhetta work, visionary, conceptual and sculptural. We published it in On Site 4, 2001 and at the time I thought that if Margate, a disconsolate seaside town with a sad pier notwithstanding J W Turner painting there in the 19th century and thus the Turner gallery project, if Margate could choose such a brave path why couldn't the rest of us. Architecture can be anything, why not make it romantic and beautiful.
Unfortunately for my architecture of possibility, this project came to grief. But what is worse is that the Council did not go back to the other 5 short-listed projects from the original competition, but instead launched a second competition and chose David Chipperfield. His £17.5 million project recently opened and is something of a shock, not for its beauty but for its extreme dullness. It is like very cheap Meier: utilitarian, conventional white galleries – a warehouse no doubt technically proficient, but as a serious building for contemporary art, a real default position.
The architecture of the new Turner Contemporary proposes that art is a curious phenomenon that the building must avoid while going through the palaver of keeping it temperature-controlled. Snøhetta's original project proposed that Margate had a maritime history, that contemporary art was interdisciplinary and collaborative and would collaborate with the architecture, and that space has a presence rather than an absence.
It is terrible that the choice is between an architecture that is emotional and brave and one that is technocratic and bleak. This isn't modernism, it is utility and budget control masquerading as modernism.