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turner prize guys

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People - Snøhetta and Spence is destined to make a major impact on the UK architectural scene with its competition-winning scheme for the Turner Centre in Margate, on course to open in 2004

Snøhetta and Spence came, seemingly from nowhere, to land the real Turner Prize, a million miles away from flickering lights in empty rooms.

It was - and is - the job to design the new, £7 million gallery for the 19th century painter's works in Margate, of all places.

And the bold, sculptural design it came up with is set to change the face of the down-at-heel Kent seaside town for good.

The practice, whose Turner scheme today went on show at the RIBA's Gallery 2 along with the runners-up in this anonymous competition, is actually a collaboration, and one which we may be hearing about on these shores a good deal more in the near future.

Snøhetta is the Norwegian end, a 50strong practice which boasts of its multidisciplinary nature, having dealings with artists and landscape architects.

Unusually, its name comes from a physical feature. Snøhetta is, as the firm's website says, a 'prestigious' snow-capped mountain in Dovre, Norway. It was a central theme in early Viking sagas and is the mythical home of Valhalla, while Henrik Ibsen developed the tale of Peer Gynt around Snøhetta. And, says the firm, it is a strong reminder of the power of landscape, architecture and context, in the broadest sense. 'Through dealing with artists and other professions, we thought we would be able to gain, and look at architecture in a different way, ' says Snøhetta principal Kjetil Thorsen.

The Spence end is the British connection. Stephen Spence (no relation to Sir Basil) heads Spence Associates, which operates from an environmental services firm's offices in Paddington.

Spence came through the ranks at the Richard Rogers Partnership from 1987, 'more on the design side of the office' to become an associate director, having worked on schemes such as Nottingham's Inland Revenue, Thames Valley University, and lastly, the just-completed Broadwick Street in London's Soho. He also worked on 'the architectural side and the bigger picture' with Philip Gumuchdjian on the Shared Ground zone in the Millennium Dome, a truly paper project, since it was made of the stuff.

Spence, now preparing a study for redeveloping the LSE campus for Ricky Burdett, was also the Rogers connection in a combined Snøhetta/Rogers entry into a competition in Norway for Telenor, its version of our BT. 'We didn't win that competition, but that's how we started our professional relationship and friendship, ' explains Thorsen.

The third man in the picture is Englishborn Robert Greenwood, project architect for Margate and the firm's almost finished Alexandria library. The team will definitely be collaborating on more UK projects, says Thorsen, and, who knows, they may even displace far bigger names in the £25 million Goldsmiths arts complex competition in London. Snøhetta and Spence is certainly in distinguished company. It is up against Allies and Morrison; Alsop Architects;

Christine Hawley Architects with WS Atkins; Dominique Perrault Architects; and Rem Koolhaas' OMA. Lord Rogers, who rates his former colleague Spence highly, was one of those choosing the shortlist. A winner should be announced early next month and Snøhetta is also shortlisted for a new gallery for Middlesbrough.

But Margate and Turner have shot the firm to fame - so much so that Norwegian TV comes in to film the AJ interview.

In Norway, the practice built itself up on the back of competitions such as the US$150 million Alexandria library, 1994's Lillehammer Winter Olympics Art Gallery, the Karmøy Fishing Museum four years later and, latterly, the new national opera house in Oslo, which it won in summer 2000 against stiff competition.

In Margate the trio hope to totally transform the seafront. Unlike the others on the shortlist, they looked at a different part of the 'fantastic' site in the competition brief, on the pier rather than tucked away on the front. There it would be a much more landmark project, a beacon, like the lighthouse beyond, and the technical assessment team okayed their approach.

The building is of two sides, to mirror Turner's differing output. On the one hand it is all regular, angular forms, perhaps to represent the more realist side of Turner's art and the public side of his character. The restaurant is contained within.On the other, the form is far taller, more abstract, more organic, taking its cue from the sails in Turner's paintings - often the only clue to scale. That is his private side. The public can still walk between the two elements as the waves lap the gallery's timber cladding. 'He really loved the elements, ' says Thorsen of Turner. 'He would tie himself to the masts of his boat just to experience what the waves would be like.'

They always knew they would win, because, they say, the simplicity of the scheme almost designed itself.

'It's very unusual and it doesn't follow any trends, ' says Greenwood, (who insists that Margate is similar to Alexandria in that both have had their heyday and now have a 'lost' atmosphere). 'It's a building with a lot of personality.'

Spence adds: 'It's not really a stone, a pebble, it's not really a sail, it's not really a boat, it's not really anything, but once you look at it you know it belongs to the sea.'

There are also, of course, Bilbao resemblances, in terms of the regenerational impact the building will undoubtedly have on the whole coastal edge of the Kent town.

'Every architect in the world will have to thank Frank Gehry for what he has done, ' says Thorsen. 'It was a marvellous jump, especially when it comes to the public way of dealing with architecture, I think it's absolutely fabulous. On the other hand, of course, that can't be the general guideline.

It's more a matter of trying to be as clever as Gehry was in Bilbao in a new way somewhere else.'

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