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Piers, Ports and People

Conference on Architecture and the Regeneration of Coastal Towns in the 21st Century.

14 June 2000

Organised by South East Arts in collaboration with the De la Warr Pavilion and the Kent Architecture Centre.


The De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex.

Conference Chair:

Paul Finch, Commissioning Officer for CABE and Editorial Director of the Publishing Group EMAP.

Conference Speakers:

  • Dr David Gilbert, Senior Lecturer in Geography at Royal Holloway College.
  • Caroline Lwin, Architect and Urban Designer.
  • Paul Koralek, Architect Partner, Arhends Burton and Koralek.
  • Dr Fred Gray, director for the Centre of Continuing Education, The University of Sussex.
  • Andrew Knight, Public Art Consultant.
  • Barry Shaw, B.Arch(hons) RIBA, MRTPI, FRSA, Chief Executive Kent Architecture Centre.
  • Reg Haslem, Head of Planning and Transportation, Blackpool Borough Council.
  • Gordon Young, Artist.

South East Arts Contacts:

  • Robert Martin
  • Frances Lord
  • Carmel Clapson

Conference overview from Simon Barker, Architect.

Wednesday 14 June 2000: a typical June day at the English seaside, overcast with rain in the air.

The irony of setting the conference in this fantastic building was lost on nobody. In this rather tired little seaside town with its people's palace of improbably high architectural quality we hoped to uncover the link between "Architecture and the regeneration of coastal towns in the 21st Century"

The De La Warr Pavilion has a long history of being misunderstood and disliked by some of the townspeople. The building's rebirth over the last few years as a venue for interesting exhibitions and performances has been welcome however on this part of the South Coast, where such delights are thin on the ground. Unfortunately, neither this, nor the fine architectural qualities of the building have seemed so far to be sufficient to seed the regeneration of Bexhill. Perhaps today we would learn how this could change in the 21st Century?

Conference Chair Paul Finch, Commissioning Officer, CABE and Editorial Director of EMAP, introduced a morning of papers devoted to explorations of the particularities of coastal towns. Finch introduced the notion of seaside towns turning to the arts as an alternative spur to tourism given that they had generally declined as reliable traditional holiday destinations. He talked about the rich mix of the transient and fixed populations and the peripheral nature of these towns. There was a hint that maybe this made the run down seaside town a metaphor for the role of the country itself in Europe. Britain was on the edge, with possibly more in common with Portugal than the major industrial nations.

Dr David Gilbert of Royal Holloway College followed, presenting a talk on the cultural history of the South Coast in the C20. He described the modern phenomena of retirement, inter-war 'bungaloid' development and the more recent concentrations of social problems in the area. These are all part of the stereotypical view of the south coast. Gilbert proposed an alternative view: that the South Coast was a site of solid democratic change during the last century. New patterns of living were embraced and new types of building and public space developed.

We heard how the seaside served as a rich source of childhood memory, as well as benefiting from the experiences of its population of older migrants. This positive image was undermined somewhat by the description of day-tripping artists from London foraging the junk shops of Bexhill and Bognor, rifling through the traces of these lives.

The rich tradition of the material arts on the south coast (effectively DIY) was also proposed as evidence of creativity and diversity. The usual notions of suburban conformity by the sea were challenged and the image of Gilbert's great uncle Harold doing creative work in his (car-free) garage was invoked.

This was all too romantic for one delegate, who denounced it as a "London view". It took no account of joblessness, asylum-seekers and other social problems. It is undeniably true that these social realities are central to the problems of many coastal towns and they are surely not unique to these places. But historically the seaside has relied economically upon its potential for presenting the romantic. Gilbert was maybe suggesting a way in which this potential might be reconfigured to incorporate more recent history and given a new vitality.

Next on, Architect Caroline Lwin presented an analysis of the forms and types of seaside towns, and, with the aid of slides of a fried egg, she demonstrated a major difference between coastal and non-coastal towns. At the seaside the centre of the town tends also to be an edge: cue for slide of half a fried egg. We were told that this ambiguous sea/town interface was very important.

Lwin's talk became interesting when it went beyond these generalities to touch on the specific problems of her own locality, Hastings. She correctly identified the damage caused to the town's fabric by recent re-developments, and which have created problems which will need more than a bit of good architecture and public art to put right.

As for the fried egg analogy, anyone who has ever tried to run a business in a seaside town knows that the real significance of the town's location is that half of the potential catchment area for business is missing. Businesses that do not depend on tourism find it harder to survive in these towns and tend to move away to areas with better-connected infrastructure. If tourism fails, which may happen, there isn't much left to fill the void. Lwin mentioned the need for a better rail service; a point probably not lost on those who had made the decision to attend the conference by public transport.

Architect Paul Koralek of Arhends Burton and Koralek presented specific coastal projects by his practice, in Dover and in Cardiff Bay, which they had also master-planned.

The City of Cardiff was evidently a fried egg, which had been cut in the wrong place, leaving the centre too far from the edge. New roads and flagship buildings on the bay were intended to promote regeneration and the master plan had included a grand new boulevard to link the new regenerated edge with the centre.

The Techniquest building on Cardiff Bay was a success, we were told, because it was based around real needs and real people. The White Cliffs Experience in Dover, however, would never be completely successful because it could not overcome the structural problems of the town's layout. It was a useful reminder that architecture cannot transcend non-architectural problems.

Regardless of the perceived successes of Techniquest however, in Cardiff Bay, the regeneration effect has clearly yet to penetrate much beyond the edge of the Bay area itself. The new boulevard has yet to materialise and the flagship buildings, strung along the bay between the sea and a noisy road, quickly give way to un-regenerated peripheral city marooned between edge and centre. Some of these remnants are solid and coherent 19th century buildings, now apparently ignored in the chase for a collection of 'signature' buildings strung together by advanced road engineering.

Dr Fred Grey of The University of Sussex, wound up the morning with an entertaining history of the seaside pier. We heard how their form and use, as well as our perception of them had changed over time. They had begun as forward-looking structures, which represented notions of the exotic, of travel and leisure; they were now seen as history and heritage as well as run down, part of the mise en scne of problematic coastal towns.

The pier had begun as a commodifcation of nature, a way of experiencing the sea without a boat, a place for walking and social intercourse. It had moved on to become by turns a funfair, a location for gambling and now (in some cases) a heritage attraction.

The afternoon was devoted to case studies of projects in coastal towns and began with Public Art Consultant Andrew Knight's presentation of Bridlington's South Promenade project. This was a collaboration between architect Irene Bauman and artist Bruce McLean. He described how the architect and artist had brought to the project an understanding of place, of space and social function. Alongside the more predictable sculptural elements and buildings, the design had evolved to include some quite subtle details, such as the finely tuned variations in lamp standard heights, that spoke of a real understanding of how this very particular place was experienced. It was demonstrated how good public art might contribute in a very intelligent way to urban design, avoiding the clich of public spaces and traffic islands cluttered with inappropriate, unloved bits of sculpture.

Knight explained that there had been no consultation with local businesses and other interest groups, which he felt would have raised a barrage of conservative opposition to the project. While this had obviously suited the particular meeting of individuals and politics in this case, given the realities of local politics, one could only propose such a course in general with considerable caution. Knight was evidently satisfied that the project had brought tangible benefits in additional tourism, it would be useful to see the evidence of this if other towns are to follow Bridlington's lead.

Barry Shaw, Chief Executive of the Kent Architecture Centre, made the case for architecture centres as a tool for explaining what architecture is and what it can do, going on to describe the Centre's work in Margate.

Some interesting urban analysis work was presented, which sought to explain why the town was failing socially and economically. A new gallery/arts centre is proposed to act as a catalyst for regeneration. The regenerative powers of the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Tate of St Ives were proclaimed in support.

While Paul Koralek had been candid about the limitations of architecture to solve problems beyond its real scope and Paul Finch in his summing-up reminded us of architect Cedric Price's warning on the futility of' "band aid" architecture, this mention of Bilbao and St Ives was probably the only point in the conference where the (quantifiable?) performance of precedents for this type of regeneration was mentioned.

Conflicting claims have been made either way, supporting and damning the economic effect of new arts centres in coastal towns.

Happily in the case of Margate, the proposed new building comes alongside some real effort of understanding. There will be a collection of other measures to repair the structure of a town that has been ravaged by bad planning. The example of the De La Warr and its relation to the Bexhill are as much a warning as a precedent in this context.

The focus of the proceedings shifted abruptly to the Northwest of England as town planner, Reg Haslem, now Head of Planning and Transportation for Blackpool talked about his previous work for Morecambe. He proposed that coastal towns had tended to miss out on the regeneration projects which their inland counterparts had benefited from. The traditional Sunday day trip had lost out to the attractions of retail and sport and as if this wasn't bad enough, climate change had lead to increasing storminess, and the oversupply of empty accommodation was leading to an increased transient population.

Haslem's look at the social and economic problems which tend to beset seaside towns was welcome. An interesting proposal was made: regeneration could be aided by reducing the density of accommodation. Houses in multiple occupation could be returned to single dwelling use, a more settled, coherent (and wealthy?) population would follow. Unfortunately, what was being proposed amounted to a gentrification process coming from outside these towns. This can only reduce access to housing from the existing population base (see Brighton) and further marginalise the transient population (who we had already been told more than once during the day, were a component in the rich diversity of seaside towns). Houses in multiple occupation also make a living for landlords and homeowners where tourism is now a poor option.

Recent shifts in Central Government planning policy have encouraged greater densification of urban areas, a strategy which may well be irrelevant to Morecambe and its like. A radical (and probably risky) alternative strategy would be to knock down houses and not rebuild them. But what would replace the houses? This is an open question at present.

Real seaside jolliness is not self consciously artful, it has a robust vulgarity and is often tawdry. This is part of its charm. Maybe permanent public sculpture is too close to the official memorial, in a society which no longer agrees easily on what should, or can be, memorialised. There is no shared language for this. The machinations surrounding various Diana proposals are a case in point.

It appeared that Morecambe's seafront had been totally reconfigured in the attempt to solve perceived problems. This desire for coherence is pitted against powerful circumstances, circumstances that we do not necessarily understand well. These can so easily overtake the good intentions of the Public Good and its bureaucracies.

Artist, Gordon Young followed. He emphasised how his public art interventions in Plymouth were actually a response to a signage contract rather than a public art commission. Art had been introduced by stealth and in collaboration with the local community. The individual pieces exhibited wit and visual delight, but one wondered whether this almost compulsive labelling of ordinary things with pieces of art is really the best way in which artists can contribute to improving the urban environment.

Other artistic practices lay open to scrutiny the components of an environment, provoking a reassessment of what constitutes aesthetic value and making accessible qualities of the ordinary and commonplace which have been overlooked. I am thinking particularly of photography and temporary installations, both of which can bring about a new regard for the familiar, introducing delight into the existing and so modifying the environment in a cogent way, with little or no physical intervention. This can also represent real value for money.

The conference was a much-needed opportunity to focus on the problems and possible solutions for coastal towns, which are marginalised even in relation to the regions. In the nature of conferences of this sort, the emphasis on the day was on the speakers' papers. But it was clear however, that there is sufficient interest and need for further debate. Although there may have been a tendency for the efficacy of the solutions (architecture - more specifically arts centres and public art) to be taken as a given, it must be said that the conference did raise many interesting questions. While I may not be convinced that any were really answered during the day, it is to be hoped that a real dialogue could now follow.

The issue of the future of the De La Warr Pavilion was addressed in the Radio 3 discussion later in the evening.

However, behind the scenes the situation was rapidly changing. A week later it would be announced that Wetherspoons had been going cold on the idea of running the building as a pub. They had been unable to find a tenant with sufficiently deep pockets to run the theatre and Rother Council had now earmarked £75,000 of their Arts Council grant to develop a new proposal for the building as the largest arts centre on the South Coast

If all this comes to pass, the ensuing regeneration of Bexhill will be welcome. I suspect that this will depend as much, if not more, on whether the long promised fast rail link ever materialises.

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