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Salt in the wounds: the decline and rise of the great British seaside

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Cultural crucibles must not exorcise the delicious salty spirit of the Great British seaside

The haunting sobs of seagulls’ song make my heart swell like the dark tide. It is a hymn for grey, wind-whipped seafront promenades, chapped grandeur, and empty arcades of lonely blinking slot machines. Salty, deep-fried sea breeze; empty shells haunted by the ghosts of sea creatures. I have always taken a melancholic pleasure in the British seaside. Perhaps it is my familial roots, my mother’s in forsaken Lowestoft – where the sun rises first – and my father’s in the once-great port of Southampton, which bid farewell to the doomed Titanic over a hundred years ago.

‘I was unprepared for the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of me in Lowestoft’, WG Sebald wrote in his 1995 book The Rings of Saturn, an ode to these most easterly flatlands. I recognise his Lowestoft, which he visited the month before I was born: the ‘oriental palace’ of Somerleyton Hall, the untouched 19th-century station, the unloved houses with ‘mean little front gardens’, and the high street of ‘amusement arcades, bingo halls, betting shops, video stores’ and ‘pubs that emit a sour reek of beer from their dark doorways’. Little evidence survives of Lowestoft’s ‘seaside resort lauded even abroad as “most salubrious”’.

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Rings of saturn wg sebald 2

WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995) is an account of a walk through coastal Suffolk in August 1992, from Lowestoft to Bungay via stories in China, his native Germany and the Congo

In the throes of Great Britain’s love affair with the seaside, we bestowed jewels and trinkets along her beaches: spindly pleasure piers creaking with Ferris wheels and ice cream parlours, Art Deco lidos in Plymouth, Saltdean and Penzance, and triumphant pavilions, commanding views of the endless sea. Like an ocean liner unwittingly beached on the shores of Bexhill-on-Sea, the heroic De La Warr Pavilion was perhaps the most ambitious, built in 1935 by Modernists Serge Chermayeff and Erich Mendelsohn and restored by John McAslan + Partners in 2005. The project was instigated by the town’s socialist mayor, the ninth Earl De La Warr (known as Buck), who described the project as ‘a crucible for creating a new model of cultural provision in an English seaside town which is going to lead to the growth, prosperity and the greater culture of our town’: a model for modern-day gentrification.

Interrupted by the Second World War, the pavilion accommodated a changing programme of entertainment, from quoits on the roof to Starlight Rendezvous to car boot sales, before surrendering to salt air and strangled funding. Great Britain fell out of love with its seaside, rescinded her affections, and discarded the gifts she had lovingly bequeathed on her seafronts, seduced instead by the low-cost package holiday. From Lowestoft to Bexhill-on-Sea, Britain’s resorts were left bereft. 

‘At their worst, imported cultural crucibles are an indecent fig leaf, a thin pallid art-wash or an inadequate sticking plaster exposing the stinging social wounds underneath’

Many have been in mourning ever since. In 83 of Britain’s 98 coastal local authorities, people earned below the national average in 2016 and face some of the lowest employment levels in the country. As the centrifugal forces of London continue to spin, those with the loosest roots are flung to the very edges of the country where they can go no further. Large numbers of the capital’s social housing tenants and vulnerable people have been relocated by London councils to south-eastern seaside towns (among others), taking advantage of low-cost housing.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that when an opportunity arose to reject the status quo, many coastal populations gripped it tightly in their grasp. South Thanet, a coastal Kent constituency described by Owen Jones as ‘Brexitland-on-Sea’, was depicted during the referendum as UKIP’s heartlands, witnessing the final failed parliamentary bid of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage in 2015. On the land’s edge, looking out across the churning ocean, many people decided they would like to up-anchor and leave the mainland behind forever. 

On a trip to Hastings a week before the EU referendum took place in 2016, the shingle beach rang with the call to ‘take back our waters’, nostalgia for nets bulging with writhing silver burning hot in fishermen’s chests. The days of rolling mounds of freshly caught fish, the other lifeline for many seaside towns, are long gone. The blackened bones of old net-drying racks emerge from Lowestoft’s beach like the splintered ribs of some great terrifying sea beast washed ashore. 

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1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) by Ben Nicholson

1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) by Ben Nicholson. Image © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2019

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Large numbers of seaside towns voted in favour of Brexit

Large numbers of seaside towns voted in favour of Brexit. Image courtesy of Niklas Hallen / AFP / Getty Images

Eighty years on, Buck’s model for a cultural crucible in Bexhill-on-Sea to bring seaside towns growth and prosperity, has been enthusiastically rekindled. Saved from the sea’s slow death and enjoying a second moment in the sun, the De La Warr Pavilion now brings world-class art, music and comedy to this otherwise unlovely town. Elsewhere, a gallery can uncover a rich pre-existing artistic heritage, such as the Tate’s franchise down in the country’s pointed western toe in St Ives. Originally built by Evans & Shalev in 1993 (AR July 1993), Tate St Ives exposed in its solemn coliseum a seam of local 20th-century artistic production, including the taut sculpture of Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson’s lapping lines, and the fizzing colour of Patrick Heron. In 2017, the gallery’s area was doubled by Jamie Fobert Architects’ extension, a crow’s nest held high above the ocean.

Across the country in Kent, cultural currents require more concerted unearthing. JMW Turner frequented the Kent coast, telling his friend John Ruskin that ‘the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe’. Turner Contemporary in Margate (AR May 2011) distils the relationship between artist and landscape, the building designed by David Chipperfield Architects in 2011 capturing the swirling eternal seascapes and liquid light that characterise Turner’s work. Already the gallery is looking to expand, confirming last year that Avanti Architects have been appointed to overhaul and extend the building as it starts to sink under the swell of its own popularity.

Art is in the sea air. Rick Mather Architects’ Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne was completed two years before the Turner, housing an internationally significant collection including a major body of work by Eric Ravilious. The Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, designed by HAT Projects, opened its doors in 2012, crouched among the mute tarred net sheds on the shingle – inky blackness shimmering like oil on water. Seaside galleries are by no means limited to the island’s southern edges: finished just six months ago, the V&A’s new outpost by Kengo Kuma is a concrete tanker moored to Dundee’s docks where the River Tay meets the sea.

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The De La Warr Pavilion

The De La Warr Pavilion deteriorated after the Second World War as funding for its upkeep was choked. Image courtesy of Tim Benton / RIBA Collections

During the 1950s, the pavilion hosted popular summer shows before its subsequent decline (c) de la warr pavilion

During the 1950s, the pavilion hosted popular summer shows before its subsequent decline (c) de la warr pavilion

Starlight Rendezvous was a popular summer show held at the pavilion in the ’50s. Image courtesy of Bexhill Museum

Aspirations for new prosperity are not pinned solely on cultural projects. They join a raft of assorted small-scale follies peppered liberally along the southern coast of the UK: in Littlehampton, Thomas Heatherwick’s lumpen East Beach Café (2007 – his first built project), Asif Khan’s understated West Beach Café (2008), the country’s longest bench (Studio Weave, 2010) and wing-like beach shelters (Flanagan Lawrence, 2014), all instigated by property developer Jane Wood; a sober pavilion at the end of Deal’s concrete ’50s pier sponsored by Dover District Council (Níall McLaughlin Architects, 2008); chiselled wind shelters in Bexhill-on-Sea funded by CABE’s nauseatingly titled Sea Change programme (Duggan Morris, 2011); and an infamous pier in Hastings (dRMM, 2016), wrested from an offshore company into public ownership, only to fall back into private hands just two years after opening. Old attractions have also been issued a new lease of life, including Margate’s dated Dreamland amusement park, reinvented and restored in 2015 (a false start, closing almost immediately and reopening in 2017), and the stunning Art Deco Jubilee Pool in Penzance, swinging out into the sea like a dazzling whitewashed Greek island, which is currently undergoing renovation by Scott Whitby Studio due to complete this summer. All gingerly walk the perilous tightrope of seaside gentrification. 

It is, of course, not a model that applies only to coastal towns. The De La Warr Pavilion model is habitually utilised across Britain’s fraying urban areas to stimulate financial growth via a cultural fulcrum. Caruso St John’s Walsall Gallery (AR May 2000) is one particularly impressive example, still providing a robust and inviting centre for art in a troubled satellite of Birmingham, and Londoners will be familiar with the abandoned warehouse gallery aesthetic that dominates rapidly gentrifying corners of east and south London (AR February 2019).

‘In the throes of Great Britain’s love affair with the seaside, we bestowed jewels and trinkets along her beaches’

In many cases, the numbers bear testimony to their success in financial terms. Turner Contemporary claims to have added £61 million to the local economy since opening, and the number of creative businesses in Thanet increased by over 80 per cent between 2013 and 2016. There is now a steady seawards migration, from Hackney and Peckham to Margate, Hastings or Folkestone, led by artists attracted by low rents. But by resembling Shoreditch-on-Sea rather than Brexitland-on-Sea, the familiar paradigm of house prices chasing communities of artists is on the horizon. 

Accordingly, not all of these well-meaning cultural gifts are gratefully received. In place of a Guy on Bonfire Night, in Hastings in 2008 an effigy of a classical temple labelled ‘ART GALLERY’ was set ablaze. 

At their worst, imported cultural crucibles are an indecent fig leaf, a thin pallid art-wash or an inadequate sticking plaster exposing the stinging social wounds underneath. At their best, however, they showcase the beauty and brilliance of art in all its forms without sanitising too much the seaside’s inbuilt delicious crummy saltiness. Mistrust of art and fury at the people it attracts is misplaced. Bringing art into reaching distance of people who otherwise may never encounter it is no crime. What is a crime, however, is failing to control rents, build adequate housing and support impoverished populations. Hopes that galleries or windshelters will salve deep social scars are equally misguided. 

20120203022915 jmw turner waves breaking on a lee shore at margate  circa 1840 oil on canvas credit tate  london 2010 small

20120203022915 jmw turner waves breaking on a lee shore at margate circa 1840 oil on canvas credit tate london 2010 small

Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate, JMW Turner, c1840

Lowestoft’s south pier, Sebald writes, was considered ‘the most beautiful anywhere along the eastern coast of England’, the mirror-lined pavilion thrust 400 metres into the sea – a blaze of light floating in the dark night, the black North Sea set aflame. Ravaged by fire and war, only a skeletal concrete arm remains, gated by sweaty ogeed glasshouses serving sweet teas and fish and chips burning with vinegar – somewhat fresher with proximity to the sea.

My misted childhood memories of Lowestoft sparkle like the swirling lights of the lost south pier, sticky with ice cream. But it was a different Lowestoft which I left for the last time seven years ago now – a low, close sky of frigid clouds mourning a desolate concrete high street, empty still beaches and gun-metal sea. It remains a jilted bride, a bereaved widow, awaiting the warm glow of a shining cultural beacon to tempt it in from the cold. At the sea wall, slowly crumbling into the waves, the weeping gulls and I grieved for my grandfather and his sad seaside town. 

Hiding in plain sight among Hastings’ tarred net sheds, the robust, ceramic-tiled Jerwood Gallery was completed in 2012 by HAT Projects.Funded entirely by the Jerwood Foundation and built to house its collection of modern British art, recent reports suggest that the relationship has soured and that the gallery will lose 300 works and most of its funding by the end of the year. The Jerwood Gallery (or whatever it will become as it will also inevitably have to change its name) has built its reputation through world-class exhibitions over the last seven years and is expected to continue to do so.

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Jerwood Gallery, Hastings by HAT Projects, photo by Ioana Marinescu

Photograph by Ioana Marinescu

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Jerwood Gallery, Hastings by HAT Projects, photo by Ioana Marinescu

Photograph by Ioana Marinescu

Tate St Ives extension by Jamie Fobert Architects, 2017

Despite the deluge of wealthy second home-owners, Cornwall is one of the most deprived regions in the country, with wages in the idyllic Cornish town of St Ives a third lower than the national average. Grafted onto a steep cliff face in the town, the most westerly Tate outpost was designed by Evans & Shalev in 1993 to bring the stellar local artistic heritage to the fore.

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Tate St Ives extension by Jamie Fobert Architects, Cornwall, photo by Jim Stephenson

Photograph by Jim Stephenson

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Tate St Ives extension by Jamie Fobert Architects, Cornwall, photo by Jim Stephenson

Photograph by Jim Stephenson

The original galleries are tucked behind a sea-facing rotunda, which climbs up from street level. Inundated with over three times the number of visitors it was designed to accommodate, 24 years after opening Jamie Fobert Architects’ extension adds 600m2 of new gallery space, yet is hardly visible above the cliff’s parapet. The volume of the new galleries is sunk into hillside, top-lit by monumental rooflights that emerge in a cliff-top terrace. The tranquil galleries, articulated by a stunning ceiling of deep, slender concrete beams, thankfully eschew the previous architects’ stiff, formalised geometries to create serene and generous exhibition spaces that maximise the usable area of the site. The new building is betrayed only by a small pavilion that protrudes above the original gallery, clad in ceramic tiles the colour of the swirling green Cornish sea. The pavilion houses education spaces and staff offices, and opens onto the roof terrace perched high on the cliff above the Atlantic Ocean like a gull’s eyrie.

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Tate St Ives extension by Jamie Fobert Architects, Cornwall, photo by Jim Stephenson

Photograph by Jim Stephenson

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Tate St Ives extension by Jamie Fobert Architects, Cornwall, photo by Jim Stephenson

Photograph by Jim Stephenson

Tate st ives

Tate st ives

Click to download

V&A Dundee by Kengo Kuma and Associates, 2018

Despite the deluge of wealthy second home-owners, Cornwall is one of the most deprived regions in the country, with wages in the idyllic Cornish town of St Ives a third lower than the national average. Grafted onto a steep cliff face in the town, the most westerly Tate outpost was designed by Evans & Shalev in 1993 to bring the stellar local artistic heritage to the fore.

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V&A Dundee by Kengo Kuma Associates, photo by Jim Stephenson

Photograph by Jim Stephenson

V&adundee jimstephenson 4

V&A Dundee by Kengo Kuma Associates, photo by Jim Stephenson

Photograph by Jim Stephenson

The original galleries are tucked behind a sea-facing rotunda, which climbs up from street level. Inundated with over three times the number of visitors it was designed to accommodate, 24 years after opening Jamie Fobert Architects’ extension adds 600m2 of new gallery space, yet is hardly visible above the cliff’s parapet. The volume of the new galleries is sunk into hillside, top-lit by monumental rooflights that emerge in a cliff-top terrace. The tranquil galleries, articulated by a stunning ceiling of deep, slender concrete beams, thankfully eschew the previous architects’ stiff, formalised geometries to create serene and generous exhibition spaces that maximise the usable area of the site. The new building is betrayed only by a small pavilion that protrudes above the original gallery, clad in ceramic tiles the colour of the swirling green Cornish sea. The pavilion houses education spaces and staff offices, and opens onto the roof terrace perched high on the cliff above the Atlantic Ocean like a gull’s eyrie.

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V&A Dundee by Kengo Kuma Associates, photo by Jim Stephenson

Photograph by Jim Stephenson

V a dundee scotland ©huftoncrow 072

V&A Dundee by Kengo Kuma Associates, photo by Hufton + Crow

Photograph by Hufton + Crow

 

Lead image: David Chipperfield Architects’ Turner Contemporary in Margate opened in 2011. Photograph by Simon Menges

This piece is featured in the AR April 2019 issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today

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