Sunday, January 25, 2009

Grim Prospect


This post is perhaps more in the line of English Buildings, but there are some odd coincidences that make me want to write briefly about this building. It's by Oliver Hill, architect of the recently refurbished Midland Hotel in Morecambe, and it is, or was, called the Prospect Inn. It is on the Isle of Thanet which is the bit of Kent that sticks out into the Straits of Dover starting at Whitstable and ending at Ramsgate and with mostly potatoe fields in between. The Prospect Inn sits next to a roundabout overlooking Manston Airport in a particularly bleak bit of landscape.

A few years ago I wrote a review of a book on pub design in which Hill's inn featured. Built in 1938 it is one of the very few pubs ever to be designed in a modernist style. I became vaguely obsessed with its plan, which is eccentric to say the least, especially the biomorphic toilets which stick out from the sides of the building like slightly floppy ears. They are also on opposite sides of the bar area and you need to go outside to get to them, suggesting a playful spatial joke on the courtship rituals of friday night drinking. It also featured some rather lovely floor graphics - long since gone - and a stripped back arts and crafts style fireplace which is still there.

After lying derelict for some years (you can see some pictures of it in this state on mark.ed's flickr site here) the Prospect Inn has been refurbished, mostly pretty horrendously and with a new Holiday Inn tacked onto the back. This has been designed in a sort of pre-fab industrial style with bull-nosed escape stair protrusions that it's just possible to imagine are intended to be sympathetic to Hill's design.



Early modernism in the UK was often associated with leisure uses but these were mostly of the slightly hairshirt, self-improving kind such as lidos and health centres, so the Prospect Inn was also rare for having a populist and hedonistic function. Not that you can imagine much in the way of hedonism happening on this bit of the Isle of Thanet, which is presumably why it closed down. Now the new hotel serves the expanding Kent International Airport.

Oddly Hill also designed an estate of modernist houses (see this fabulous flickr site) in Frinton-On-Sea, a slightly sinister village on the Essex coast that until five years ago didn't have a single pub, and which has a number of bizarre local bye-laws including one forbidding ice cream vans. I know this because as a child Frinton was the nearest bit of seaside to where I grew up so I spent a lot of childhood summer days there. Years later as an architecture tutor I set a spectacularly unsuccesful design project there based on the town's endless battle to keep out the modern world*. Somewhat shamefully, I was completely unaware of Hill's work there at the time.



Anyway, I realised the other day reading this book that I had passed the Prospect Inn a number of times and not realised. So, today I took some terrible photographs of it in the rain while my wife stared out at me from the car in disbelief and my ten day old son slept on in blissful ignorance of his father's nerdish behaviour.

Finally, here is a period picture (via) of the serpentine wall that is still there along the roadside, along with a beautiful pub sign which is a miniature version of the building, which sadly isn't.



* Frinton-On-Sea was recently the subject of a BBC documentary about the resident's extraordinary conservatism. Unless I dreamt it, which is possible, it is also the temporary home to a number of ex-Radio 1 DJ's. who are starting a digital radio station there in tribute to Radio Caroline, the 1960's pirate radio station which for a while broadcast from a marine fort just off the Isle of Thanet. The original Radio Caroline pirate ship was anchored off the Essex coast in the early '70's and, somewhat bizarelly, washed up on Frinton's beach. Perhaps the residents feared a counter cultural invasion and have stepped up their vigilence ever since.

7 comments:

Murphy said...

I love the way that quite a lot of GLC estates in London have pubs built into them, which often have gloriously contradictory interiors.
There's obviously Lubetkin/Tekton's one in Bethnal Green, but there are so many others across the East End. Mostly post-war though, I suppose...

I wonder if they were named after the pubs that had sat on the sites before they were bombed/cleared?

owen hatherley said...

Great stuff. Someone needs to write a book on Essex and Kent Modernism as a specific phenomenon, and I keep meaning to visit Silver End, East Tilbury, Frinton Park et al... Hill is a very interesting and odd figure - me and Mr Murphy went to Newbury Park to see this recently, which is fabulous.

Mind you:

Early modernism in the UK was often associated with leisure uses but these were mostly of the slightly hairshirt, self-improving kind such as lidos and health centres, so the Prospect Inn was also rare for having a populist and hedonistic function

This is broadly true, but not the whole story - Joseph Emberton - only British architect in the International Style book/exhibition! - did design much of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, after all. I tend to think that the narrative of British hostility to Modernism ignores how popular things like Blackpool, the De La Warr Pavilion and the 1930s Odeons and Granadas were. Which is partly the fault of the Pevnserish position that these weren't proper Modernism.

Jennifer said...

I know what you mean Murphy. They often seemed to be the one bit of folksy historicism on otherwise brutalist estates which makes Hill's one interesting. I have never actually been to that Tecton one though. I shall.

Owen. Yes, Essex has more than its fair share of modernist housing. What's interesting too is that it is of a different sort to the home counties moderne of High and Over etc. and is more interesting socially. Much of it like the Bata stuff and Silver End (on my parent's back door when I was growing up, although I had never heard of it. I remember seeing a picture of it when at college and thinking nothing like that could possibly exist in Essex.

That's a good point about Blackpool. Definitely a building I didn't really know about. An interesting counterpoint too to the Victorian extravaganza of the tower....

Charles Holland said...

ha, that's me making the comments above. Jennifer is my alter ego.....

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks for a fascinating post, and for noticing my autodidact mumblings. I love the biomorphic loos, and the terrific period photograph – what a shame you didn't have good weather like the earlier photographer: sun, sea, and modernism, eh?

Charles Holland said...

Thanks Philip.

Yes,that final image is beautiful one isn't it? As mysterious and evocative as the current hotel isn't. There are good photos of the interiors in Alan Power's book which has a lot of obscure (well to me) gems of sun, sea (sometimes) and modernism.

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