When David Chipperfield and Victoria Pomery, director of Turner Contemporary, presented their plans for the new gallery to the people of Margate in the auditorium of the Theatre Royal, a man stood up and said the roof was wrong. "You've made it flat and there are no flat roofs in Margate." So Chipperfield changed it. "It was a good idea," he explains. "The shape of a roof, the silhouette of a building, is part of its personality so that it's interesting to hear what people think, and maybe they put their finger on something you haven't thought of." But can a single building save a dying town? Can Chipperfield's art-gallery-on-the-beach rescue Margate, the seaside community with the highest number of closed shops in the country, from its doleful destiny?
While the sea and coast are historically subjects for artists, the seaside hadn't been seen as the natural place for a gallery until quite recently.
The pioneer was Tate St Ives, a focus point for contemporary art at the place where much of modern British art was inspired by the St Ives School of painters and sculptors. It opened in 1993 on the beach at Porthmeor which so stirred the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost and Peter Lanyon (it remains the only art gallery in the world with its own surfboard park). It is credited with reviving Cornish tourism by attracting a different kind of visitor, and Cornwall County Council has now acquired land to add an extension to the gallery.
More recently, the Kent/Sussex coast has seen art used as a reviver of moribund beach resorts. Bexhill was best known as a dormitory for the retired, with an ignored icon of art deco architecture on its promenade. The De La Warr Pavilion, designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermeyeff, was built in the mid-Thirties by Earl De La Warr to be a leisure centre for the then buoyant holiday community, but after the war it was unfashionable and, if not despised, neglected. Half-hearted attempts at modernisation didn't help.
In 1986, though, English Heritage listed the building Grade I and a trust was formed to restore the pavilion and find it a future use. It was the playwright David Hare who suggested it should become an art gallery. After an £8m restoration and refurbishment, it opened in 2005. As well as hosting contemporary art exhibitions, it also offers live music, a good restaurant, entertainment and a large education programme. It attracts 500,000 visitors a year, with all the multiple benefits for the town that implies. A few miles along the coast at Eastbourne, the Towner Art Gallery was created in the 1920s after an alderman left 22 paintings and £6,000 to build a gallery for them. Its collections grew in size and importance, and a new gallery designed by Rick Mather was built next to the town's theatre and opened in 2009.
On Hastings's historic Stade, still used by the local fishing fleet, the Jerwood Foundation has built an art gallery designed by the youthful HAT Projects practice to hold and show its own collections of British art, and it will open in June.
Folkestone has chosen contemporary art to revive its fortunes, but without a gallery. Instead, in 2008 a local millionaire, Roger de Haan, initiated the Folkestone Triennial with a £4.5m endowment, commissioning the likes of Tracey Emin, Mark Wallinger and Tacita Dean to make works of art and place them around the town, many of which remain, remarkably unvandalised. It brought 400,000 new visitors to Folkestone, and a number of artists have now settled there. The next three-month festival opens in June, and De Haan is believed to be considering a permanent gallery as well.
But of all the south-east coast's communities, Margate seems the most obvious for a celebration of visual art, for reasons the Turner Contemporary's name implies.
Turner first came here in 1786 at the age of 11, sent to school in Love Lane. He returned when he was 21 to sketch and stay on the seafront at Mrs Booth's Guesthouse. Captivated by the charms of Mrs Booth, who became his mistress, Turner was also enchanted by the light and the views, telling his mentor John Ruskin "the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe". More than 100 of his works, including some of his most famous seascapes, were inspired by this coast, and he kept returning for the rest of his long life.
Turner isn't alone in being beguiled by this part of Kent. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is buried here, Walter Sickert taught here, Augustus Pugin lived and died down the road in Ramsgate. T S Eliot wrote part of The Waste Land overlooking Margate seafront.
Chipperfield is aware of the expectations surrounding his Margate project. "The first responsibility of Turner Contemporary is to regenerate society, give the community a place. I think if that happens it will strengthen the community, and I think it will have influence beyond that. I'm sure it will bring people from London and beyond, but first of all you've got to make it locally popular."
It is not expected to revive Margate by itself, though. The town has already seen a slow revival of its old town centre buildings through individual restoration, and Kent County Council hopes that Dreamland, the huge fairground that was in its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, when Butlins had their hotels nearby, will be revived as a kind of working fairground heritage centre. But it is Chipperfield's creation that hopes hang on to trigger the recovery.
When Turner Contemporary opens on Saturday it will be only Chipperfield's second building in England, the first being the River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames in 1998. Chipperfield has been hugely popular for his modern style around the world – there are five museums in various stages of construction in St Louis, Mexico City, Marrakesh, Milan and Berlin – but less so at home, until now. He was critical of both the fashionable architecture here and the Prince Charles-led backlash to it, and was ostracised by the architectural establishment. Not any more. Now 57, he was elected a Royal Academician in 2007, knighted two years ago and is this year's recipient of the Riba Gold Medal.
A month after Margate his much bigger Hepworth Wakefield gallery, a £35m development built around the life and work of Dame Barbara Hepworth in her Yorkshire home town, opens; he is working on a new hotel on the site of the Café Royal in Regent Street; he has created the masterplan for the Royal Academy's Burlington Gardens extension; and we meet on the site of his £1bn office development at Waterloo, London.
He doesn't have his own office, sharing a room with the five other directors of David Chipperfield Architects (of which he is principal rather than chairman) in which they sit facing each other. So we meet in the coffee room at one of the long, scrubbed deal tables. The view from the window is a rather dispiriting one of Waterloo Station and small Victorian houses dwarfed by sad 1960s office blocks. The one we are in, once the Department of Education and Science, is to be demolished to make way for his new building.
Henley came at a time when modern architecture was largely despised, often justifiably, Chipperfield thinks. It's got better since, but then he was shocked at the strength of popular antipathy. "I thought, 'Can't I do a modern building that people might be fond of, not just architects but ordinary people?'" He did, the result winning not only prizes but the affection of the people of Henley. "It's what made me think that maybe it's our responsibility to look at architecture that reaches out a little more and is more sensitive to people's expectations about what buildings should be like," he says. But his reputation spread abroad rather than here.
His great achievement has been the Neues Museum in Berlin. Built in the mid-19th century and added to until the Second World War, the Gothic pile had been the centrepiece of Berlin's Museum Island. After it was bombed twice, in 1943 and 1945, its ruined shell was left untouched for more than half a century until the decision was made to revive it, and Chipperfield had to build around the skeleton in a way that paid proper respect and earned both national and local approval. The problems were manifold, but the public was his first concern. Eleven years in the making, it opened 18 months ago, and won the Riba European Award last year.
Kent County Council gave Chipperfield the Margate commission because they were impressed by this insistence on collaboration, but much more was required than that. The council had boldly decided to restart the project after the costs of the original commission, won by Snøhetta and Spence, to build an off-shore gallery spiralled out of control and had to be abandoned at £50m. "We inherited a very nervous and less rich client," Chipperfield says, "so there was a lot of calming of nerves and hand-holding, guiding the project back in and reassuring them, and bringing the community along as well". Turner Contemporary is on budget at £17.5m and on time. It has a forecourt with a café on the south side towards the town, its gallery windows face due north and benefit from the delicious light that Turner kept coming back for throughout his life. There is a community area that welcomes visitors, and education rooms, and the galleries have been devised to look like artists' studios rather than the traditional forbidding spaces devoid of natural light where paintings are mounted as objects of awe.
"Someone criticised it as just a shed," Chipperfield says. "I can live with that: a nice shed facing the sea with good light that the people of Margate feel is theirs and others will come to see. Anything more than that is wrong. That's what we wanted it to be, just a beautiful shed."
Turner Contemporary, Margate, opens on Saturday: turnercontemporary.org, admission free
Winners and losers in the art of revival
* The New Art Gallery Walsall was a combined project of the local authority, the Arts Council and the European Regional Development Fund and was built in the shopping centre of the West Midlands town at a cost of £21m. It opened in 2000. Sometimes difficult exhibitions meant sometimes disappointing visitor numbers, but since Stephen Snoddy's appointment as director in 2005 and a recasting of the public areas, it has become a loved local icon attracting 200,000 a year.
* The Lowry had cost £106m when it opened in 1999 as a theatre/gallery centre. For years it seemed to be the only living thing in Salford Docks, but now it is the centrepiece for a community that includes the Imperial War Museum North and the BBC media quarter.
* The Sage Gateshead, designed by Norman Foster, looks like a giant steel and glass grub clinging to the banks of the Tyne. It's a music and conference centre which has revived the Gateshead Quays, with the Baltic gallery and Millennium Bridge nearby. It cost £70m and opened in 2004.
* The £15m National Centre for Popular Music, a National Lottery project, was supposed to be a tribute to Sheffield's pop pedigree and steel heritage. It missed its mark: 400,000 were expected to visit in the first year but barely 100,000 did. It opened in March 1999 and closed in June 2000. It is now Sheffield Hallam University's students' union.
* The Earth Centre, Doncaster was given £41.6m by the Millennium Commission in 1995 but only its first phase was ready by the 1999 opening. It never attracted the numbers it needed, and by October 2004 it was in administration. Last month the site was sold. It is expected to become an activity centre for schoolchildren.
* Urbis opened in Manchester in 2002 as a £30m experimental museum of urban life. In the first year fewer than 7,000 visitors came, and the director resigned. Its brief was expanded to music, fashion shows, even video game launches, and though numbers increased so did the cost to the city council – to £1m a year. It closed in February 2010 and the building will reopen in July as the National Football Museum, transferred from Preston.
* The Cardiff Bay Opera House was to be a lottery-funded home for Welsh National Opera. In 1995 the Millennium Commission scrapped it, but the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation tried again with the more populist Wales Millennium Centre, which opened in 2004.