Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Land of the fading sun

I've been mentioning the site for this photo essay for some time now but have never actually got around to writing a proper post about it. In a sense this is Part 2 of a series of posts provisionally titled Essex Modernism which I plan to self-publish and give to my relatives at Christmas. The previous post was about Silver End, near Braintree. The subject matter is also connected to the work my diploma students are doing on planned communities and model villages. 

For a faintly odd and deeply conservative kind of town, Frinton-On-Sea in Essex has more than its fair share of interesting architecture. There's Charles Voysey's The Homestead for a start, an arts and crafts masterpiece tucked away on a well-to-do avenue of pleasant but pallidly derivative villas.

The Homestead is typical Voysey - roughcast white render, slate pitched roofs and stone-dressed windows - but, appropriately enough perhaps, it lacks the sculptural audacity of Broadleys, the house Voysey built in the far more dramatic landscape of Lake Windermere. Instead it sits respectfully enough behind neat clipped hedges, its similar L-shaped plan masked by picturesque jinks and shifts in alignment.

It's still lovely though, full of subtle details like the roof slates that get smaller towards the top of the roof pitch and the heart shaped metal fixings for the deep, trough-like gutters. 

Voysey is criticised sometimes for using the same palette of materials and details in any situation, regardless of context, a tendency which also made him something of a hero for the early moderns. This proto-modernist reading was one that Voysey himself fiercely resisted, despite the later near ubiquity of his architectural language. His carefully tailored and beautifully crafted houses bequeathed the mass-produced suburbia of the interwar years.  

Less expectedly than Voysey, Frinton also boasts a collection of genuinely modernist housing in the form of Frinton Park Estate, a model holiday town built in the early 1930' to the designs of Oliver Hill. These houses occupy a less well-to-do end of town and are relatively modest in size, albeit with generous balconies and large expanses of (originally) Crittall glazing. 

Frinton Park Estate was not a commercial success - at least not at first - so only a fragment of Hill's plan was realised as he conceived it. So, his modernist villas sit amongst random bungalows, some with art-deco inflected details but most a hotch-potch of vernacular and historical styles. Plans for designs by Tecton and Erich Mendelsohn were abandoned as the style of the early houses proved hard to shift and investors pulled out.

You could write a large chunk of the history of twentieth century British domestic architecture based purely on the relationship between the two houses above. I particularly like the fact that the owner of the house on the right appears to be upping the ante by festooning his bungalow with as much Christmas bling as possible. 

The most well-known of Hill's designs is the Round House, formerly the offices for the estate's development company. Rising sun motifs adorn both the garden gate and the front door, suggesting an optimism about the whole development that wasn't borne out by events. 

It now sits rather demurely behind a high hedge looking out over its suburban setting as much as the restless and spectacularly gloomy North Sea beyond. 

Like the similar houses designed by Thomas Tait at Silver End, Hill's villas have been absorbed into their suburban landscape and grown trad porches and garden ornaments in a seemingly unproblematic way.

They are in a varied state though, some refurbished albeit with upvc windows and coloured render and some, like this one, given excessively gaudy make-overs.

I have no idea if the slightly outre balustrade work is original but it offers more inter-war suburban optimism, complete with a rather nuclear looking sun, incongruous palm trees. Next door was a more conservative villa featuring that 1930's suburban standby the green pantiled roof. 

Elsewhere, houses have fallen into slight disrepair albeit with a hint of LA, which is a hard trick to pull off in North Essex. 

Someone has started building an odd, vaguely castellated garden wall around this one too. Stick it on the roof and you might have something approaching FAT's New Islington housing. 

Some of the bungalows have modernist, or at least moderne inflections in the form of yet more Crittall windows and curved entrances, forming a kind of missing link between Hill's designs and the later free-for-all of post war bungaloid development.  

I became slightly obsessed by the variety of these as I wandered around, each sitting on a well manicured lawn like a model on its base. Despite their disparate styles, they had an essential similarity and mechanical repetitiveness that suggests the effects of mass production are acceptable as long as not overtly expressed.  

It's possible to see both the beginning and the end of something significant in Frinton. I have written about Oliver Hill before who was by all accounts a bit of a good-time party animal who gave up modernism after the war, retreating into historical styles that overtook his earlier vision of sun-washed, utopian English modernism. 

Researching this post I came across an article about a mid-century modern kind of character who has been carefully buying up and refurbishing the houses one by one. I suspect this might be one of his with its well preserved original windows and freshly painted marine balustrades.

A heavily pot-holed road runs through the centre of the estate, one end of which disappears into a heavily wooded area reminiscent of a George Shaw painting. I followed it and came across this dilapidated outpost. I wandered around it for some time trying to work out what its orginal function might have been.

It turned out to be Frinton Park Court, its copper lettering just visible through the undergrowth. Originally it had been built as a shopping centre but like much of the estate, it had been a spectacular commercial failure and closed down. In recent years it was used by a local Masonic branch but they gave it up in the late '90's and it has been crumbling ever since. 

At the rear the building appeared to be close to collapse. As I wandered around it a security guard approached me and asked me what I was doing. He seemed pleasant enough - albeit with that air of vaguely malign authority that all security guards adopt - so I told him. He was mildly incredulous that anyone should be interested in the building except for reasons of arson. It turned out that he drove down from Milton Keynes once a week to make sure that no one had burnt it to the ground. 


Chris Matthews said...

Great post. The 7th photo down is pretty gobsmacking - I imagine future history students will pay homage to that location. Browsing Google Street View I noticed that the post-war flats by the Esplanade look like confident stuff. Also, on your older Essex post, the Thomas Tait houses are very similar to New Ways in Northampton by Peter Behrens, which I think was built only a year or two before the Frinton stuff - early tentative steps for inter-war British modernism.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks Chris. Yes, the towers on the seafront are the bit between early modernism and the collapse into traditionalism in a way - a confident period of modern architecture. I didn't have time to photograph them but wanted to.......

The Behrens houses (which I knew nothing about) are amazingly similar to the Tait. Thanks for that link....they are designed pretty much the same year so clearly triangular oriel windows were big at that point!

mpeg video player said...

Looking amazing post dear. Those are awesome houses. Frinton Park Estate wasn't got commercial success but I like those estates.

dontknockitecture said...

im confused by this phrase...

"excessively gaudy"... ?

DavidLomax said...

This will be a silly question i'm sure, but have you been to the Bata houses in Tilbury? Its very strange to see a little lump of Zlin dumped in an essex container-port-town.

Charles Holland said...

knock.....err, yes! don't really usually reprimand stuff for being overly gaudy but....

david, i have been there but briefly and would like to go back. part 3 in the series Essex Modernism.