Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Growth Point Blank

More rambling Dover based research. The following is a rough and ready photo-essay, or a series of outtakes from a more serious study. All seaside towns look bleak in winter, Dover especially so as it is fabulously exposed and the front relatively depopulated. The weather was awful which didn't help and my wife and son looked increasingly pained as we traipsed around so I didn't make it as far as the harbour proper, which will be the subject of a study in its own right.

This rather nice '50's mega-residential block runs along the front (soon to have a re-working courtesy of Tonkin-Lui architects) and seems to have its own micro-climate with palm trees and fronds filling its communal garden. It suggests a more genteel kind of seaside town than the rest of Dover which is a fairly bizarre mix of brutalist infrastructure and stunning geography.

I like a map and a map that's also an object is best of all. This is a mosaic that sits on the seafront where there is a seemingly interminable supply of public art. The recent Cultural Strategy for Dover includes, apparently, a suggested five year moratorium on any new public art. This should perhaps be extended nationwide.

Below the cliffs and facing the seafront, the lovely Premier Inn spreads its welcoming arms out to greet visitors from far and wide. There is a very particular and thoroughly contemporary form of meanness to this building, which appears to have been not so much designed as assembled from the kind of cheap products featured in the building material brochures that plop through architect's post boxes with a free pencil. Bad British architecture indeed.

For a seaside town there is very little seaside. What there is is dominated by the harbour and ferries which come and go endlessly. Consequently, the usual beach frivolities seem slightly out place. A few years ago I went swimming off the coast of Calais and the sight of vast cargo boats passing as I bobbed around in the water was mildly terrifying, as if the sea were not meant to contain both at the same time.

Memorials dot the beach front including this one which records a piece of armour plating presented by the French army, set in a pleasingly robust piece of stripped classicism.

In contrast to the Premier Inn, the County Hotel, while no doubt a thoroughly unpopular local eyesore, seems to have a certain aloof dignity. People often say that Modernism as an architectural language was fine in the hands of the 'masters' but deeply banal when done by run of the mill architects. Then again, at least it was a language, a way of designing buildings that had an overriding aesthetic intent (not to mention a social one) rather than being the random outcome of bottom line cheapskate-ism. Incidentally, after Caruso St John's employment of the concrete and gold mullions of corporate brutalism is bronze tinted glazing next up for recuperation?

The County Hotel towers over Townwall Street (or the A20 as it's also known) which cuts the seafront off from the town centre. Moving between the two is via the inevitable underpass which is the usual essay in municipal railings, labyrinthine spatial complexities and counter-intuitive directional signage. Then again it's too easy to blame them - like those infernal streets in the sky - for everything that's supposedly wrong with our cities. Who knows, in a hundred years time, there may be heritage groups campaigning for their reinstatement.

Having said that, the road seems to have brought a pox on all the houses that border it. Many of the buildings along it are empty or partially demolished or in the process of becoming both. Dover has "Growth Point" status which means that it plans to build over 500 homes a year and has a government grant to aid it doing so. The area around the A20 also forms part of the Dover Town Investment Zone which is a mixed use redevelopment of the town centre.

At present the relationship between the town centre and the seafront is relatively, erm, uncelebrated. It also shares equal billing with the factory outlet shopping centre. For a seaside town and an important harbour there is remarkably little evidence of the fact when you are in the town.

The most recent myth about Dover is that it is 'home' to large numbers of asylum seekers housed in its legions of B&B's. This is no longer true - if it ever was - partly because the tensions arising from such reporting meant that a policy of 'dispersal' is now followed. There is evidence though of relatively recent arrivals (from the 1990's) who have now settled in Dover. Polish and Hungarian restaurants are dotted around the town.

Another Dover - one involving myths of English military resistance - is never far from view, however incongruous. Two ladies dressed as jolly WREN's were belting out Andrew Sister's numbers from the back of a truck when I was there to a group of shoppers and Ugg booted teenagers. Someone handed around free mince pies.

This is as close to the harbour as I got. The Dover Harbour Board is a separate autonomous entity, able to grant itself planning permission for buildings and development within its remit. This is in itself quite interesting, another kind of fiefdom within the town. The board is planning a major expansion and a new marina. Somewhere within the present harbour is the old Victorian railway station, sitting amongst the check-points, car parks and snaking lines of container lorries crawling off the boats.

UPDATE: The building described above as the County Hotel is scheduled for demolition as part of a new development for an Asda supermarket. It's not actually the County Hotel either, which is next door, although the two appear to be physically connected. It is an empty office block which sits on the site of the former Grand Hotel, a vast Victorian palace of a building destroyed by bombing in the second world war.


Angus Willson said...

A good account of a sad place.

Your photograph of the Eastern Docks refers to a railway station which it doesn't have - and you saved yourself a walk as the dock area is hostile to pedestrians. There is a good view of the overpasses and traffic lanes within the Eastern Docks from the cliffs above. There is an idiosyncratic fast-food outlet in the middle of the organised flow. The eastern cliff has a car park and National Trust visitors' centre. Best for better weather, though!

The Western Docks has the maritime railway station and has been tarted up to be a little more inviting to the ocean liner passengers making their way to 'local attractions' such as Windsor Castle, Stratford and The Tower of London! This side also has a marina and the almost inevitable retail opportunity of a factory outlet.

The saddest feature of Dover is that, despite being a gateway, it has not succeeded in looking outward.

Charles Holland said...

thanks for your comment. yes, the high street is remarkably insular and the oddest thing about it is that you have have no idea you are by the sea there. Will attempt to scale the cliffs and visit the castle on the next trip....

Blaize said...

Your remarks about "bottom line cheapskateism" are excellent. I will (if I may) add the line to my descriptive repertoire, which already includes Bill Bryson's "Fuck You school of architecture so favored by American hotel chains", and Sarah Vowell's "soul-sucking eyesore of cheap-ass despair."

Charles Holland said...

that's a nice bit of invective!