Margate: Doing a Bilbao
The sun was brilliant, the light fantastic, and there I stood in amongst it. At the end of last week while others toiled under leaden skies, I'd taken off for brighter climes.
You have to travel to find such locations, where sun and sea unite to reveal colours that are normally hidden. And I had travelled. To the place that Turner loved more than most, for the light it gives (and for his host): a place where the French would visit and mingle with other metropolitans who too were "en vacance". Not that I expected to see them on my trip, but I hoped the sun might shine.
And it did: in buckets and spades. But then, that's Margate for you.
Admittedly it's a town that has been struggling with its image of late. Once a popular seaside resort, many holidaymakers now consider it a last resort. They say cheap flights and package holidays did her in, but Brighton, Hastings and North Berwick are all doing okay. The truth is Margate went out of fashion and stayed there. And without the free-spending tourists to put a smile on her face, she became depressed, which was bad because nobody wants to holiday with a misery.
So in an attempt to cheer the old port up, the council have "done a Bilbao". That is built a funky modern art gallery in the hope that fortune will favour a brave contemporary design. It's a bold move, but is it a wise one?
Turner Contemporary, as the David Chipperfield-designed building is known, is a success inside and out. But then what would you expect from one of the world's most gifted living architects, who on Wednesday evening will pick up the highly-prized RIBA Gold Medal at a ceremony held in his honour. You only have to look at his portfolio of cultural projects on his website to know the man and his practice would create something special. Which they duly have while delivering the Holy Grail for any art-gallery-as-urban-regeneration-project: and that is a building you'd travel to see regardless of what it contains.
Like Frank Gehry's muscular Guggenheim in Bilbao, or Herzog de Meuron's Tate Modern renovation, Chipperfield's Turner Contemporary is a "must visit" on architectural grounds. The views out to the North Sea are wonderful and cleverly framed. You stand on the same spot as Turner stood over 150 years ago and see what he saw and feel what he felt. Which is awe at nature's magnificence. Yes the view is great; but the northern light is sublime. Turner described the light as "loveliest in all Europe".
David Chipperfield - rather like a composer writing an aria in an opera to highlight the voice of gifted singer - has made a song-and-dance out of Margate's greatest asset: her effervescent northern light. And once you've clocked that, everything else falls into place.
With this feature now so publicly exposed, what betting Margate becomes an artist's colony as the forest of Fontainebleau did for the Barbizon school of French landscape painters in 19th Century? Artists are like moths when it comes to light, and few places emit the transcendent wattage of Margate. Nor offer such cheap accommodation and studio space. You can get a three-bedroom flat with a limitless sea view in a respectable Victorian mansion block for a fraction of the price of a pokey bedsit in Hoxton.
Of course Margate has its downsides. The local economy took a knock recently with the closure of a major pharmaceutical business that will lift unemployment figures but not spirits. And it's not always sunny. A member of staff at Turner Contemporary told me that the sea can cut up so rough that waves smash against their lofty first-floor office windows. Clear days bring their own problems: it has been known for a navy frigate on exercises to lower her guns and lock-on to the building, which I imagine is a bit spooky. And she said that some locals are a bit Andy Gray when it comes to progressive views on the status of women.
But there is a romance to the place: part faded glory, part suggested future. The miles of sandy beaches the tourism office promotes are pleasant enough, but the North Sea is not the Med. But then they are the same sandy beaches that TS Eliot walked on early last century and wrote sections of his poetic masterpiece The Waste Land (in The Nayland Rock shelter on the beach).
On Margate Sands. I can connect Nothing with nothing. The broken fingernails of dirty hands. My people humble people who expect Nothing.
To Carthage then I came.
There's more to Margate, which you only discover when it meets yours eye. Turner Contemporary opens in April.