Sunday, August 23, 2009

Marine Style

Image of Marine Court, Hastings via
The modern movement was obsessed with maritime imagery from Le Corbusier’s Towards A New Architecture onwards. The 1920's ocean liner lingers on in the architectural imagination as a perfect symbol of modernity; a machine of transportation as well of habitation, divorced from context, floating free of history.

The aesthetic of strip windows, streamlined white balconies, sun decks and terraces defined early modernism in the UK in particular. It brought together a confluence of ideas: a belief in the recuperative properties of fresh air, an early modernist interest in health and efficiency promoted through architecture, the loveliness of the ocean liner and a certain freedom of expression associated with the seaside .

The marine style still retains a strong grip on architect’s imaginations, wheeled out the moment they get a whiff of a site near the sea. There is also a certain architectural fascination with boats generally, a slightly boy-scoutish interest in knots and joints and the way things go together, exemplified by the high tech school.

I was thinking about all this while spending a week at the Great British Seaside. All along the coast are outposts of ocean liner modernism. Two of them - the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea and Marine Court (top) in Hastings - are virtually next door to each other but there are numerous others such as Oliver Hill's Midland Hotel in Morecombe, the same architect's Frinton Park Estate in Essex and Joseph Emberton's casino in Blackpool.

Marine Court is an extraordinary building, already well described very well over at Nothing to See Here and Infinite Thought. It was designed in 1936 and very obviously based on an actual ship, the Queen Mary liner. This gives it a slightly surreal literalness as an object, more like a vast public sculpture than a block of flats.

Its current state of dilapidation only adds to the allure, making it appear as if it might have been recently raised from the sea bed. A bit like Hastings itself which has an impressive and unlikely scale to it that dwarfs the little seaside towns that come before and after it along the south east coast.

As Infinite Thought notes, Marine Court is home to psycho-geographer and Audi enthusiast Iain Sinclair. Sinclair also made a short film about it called Marine Court Rendezvous, and described it as being like the hotel from The Shining, full of endless corridors and strange empty apartments. Externally it is also now marooned over charity shops and boarded up restaurants, capturing a peculiarly seaside mix of glamorous aspiration and grim reality.

The De La Warr Pavilion is far better known than Marine Court, having been designed by Erich Mendlesohn with Serge Chermayeff. There is something slightly overstated about its status amongst architects in this country. It's elegant for sure, but less interesting than Mendlesohn's bizarre Einstein Tower in Potsdam, or his fabulous hat factory. A large part of its impact comes from its sheer incongruity. It appears strangely dislocated from its surroundings, like finding a Brancuzi in your Grandmother's living room. What is lovely is the way that the sun deck works, filling up with people in the late afternoon sun when we there, like an Edward Hopper painting come to life.

Both Marine Court and the De-La-Warr look, appropriately enough, as though they might let slip their moorings and drift off at any moment. There is a sense that both these buildings still represent travel and a kind of chic continental glamour, which says a lot more about us than them. Unlike their surroundings they appear to be straining to be part of a European intellectual milieu. This is a major part of their appeal, acting as emblems of a failed future for people who despair of Britain's isolationist tendencies and ingrained philistinism.

The sense of dislocation goes the other way too though. The most radical early modernist buildings in the UK were designed by émigré architects such as Mendelsohn, Gropius and Lubetkin. These were buildings of exile, designed by people who for the most part were only passing through, briefly setting up offices before moving on to the US where modernism would take a very different path.

In a recent post I described the coastal fortifications that occur along the same stretch of coast. Buildings like the De La Warr pavilion are the mirror image of those, a strangely optimistic outcome of the same conflict. Staring out to sea hopefully, its heavily glazed facade and sweeping sun deck couldn't be more different to the slit windows and immense walls of the pillboxes and gun emplacements that are the other architectural remnant of the same period.

No comments: