Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Plotland Arcadia on the Sussex coast


To Winchelsea Beach on the Sussex coast for Sunday lunch in one of the ‘plotlands’ houses built here, and elsewhere along the coast of Essex, Kent and Sussex – in the 1930s, just before effective planning legislation arrived in England.

The story of how these marginal areas came to be built on is told in Arcadia for All - The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape by Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward (1984).  Colin Ward described the plotlands in a 2004 article as ‘those places where, until 1939, land was divided into small plots and sold, often in unorthodox ways, to people wanting to build their holiday home, country retreat or would-be smallholding. It evokes a landscape of a grid-iron of grassy tracks, sparsely filled with bungalows made from army huts, old railway coaches, sheds, shanties and chalets, slowly evolving into ordinary suburban development.’

The story is a quintessentially English one, with all the tensions of today’s planning system present in embryonic form, overlaid with themes of town vs. country  and middle class vs. working class (East Enders buying plots from farmers and upsetting the settled communities nearby with their sometimes ramshackle buildings).  Although the pressures to regulate were presented as mainly to do with roads and drains, there were also objections to the generally untidy look of the strip development that resulted, and to the unsuitable type of person who came to live in them.  But even in the 1930s, there were those who defended what was being created as having an interesting and distinct character of its own.

Colin Ward’s anarchist sensibility let him to sympathise with the plotlands pioneers, who without being hampered by regulation, created environments that are, of course, highly sought after today.  Now there is development pressure, and at Winchelsea Beach, at least – which I suspect has always been at the more salubrious end of the plotlands spectrum – the original shacks, some by now more or less collapsing, are gradually being replaced with slightly larger architect-designed replacements, most reflecting to at least some degree the spirit of the originals.  But  taken together, in their newness and conformity with regulations, these new houses are resulting in a change to the character of these remarkable places - the suburbanisation referred to by Colin Ward.  And it can't be long before the money being invested leads to pressure to replace the potholed gravel tracks with proper roads (though come to think of it, perhaps the excuse to get one's Tonka-toy-style SUV muddy is part of the attraction?)

Time to declare a few conservation areas to recognise the special character of the plotlands?   What an irony that would be.   

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Fifty Shards of grey and a pimped up porch

It’s been Shardmania week in London. 

A previous post noted how the Shard reflects different weather conditions.  Much of what gets written about buildings of this kind in the national press is a reflection of prejudices and preconceptions about other things - projected onto the subject building like the attention-seeking lasers that marked the Shard’s inauguration.

The build-up to Thursday’s display, for example, included an intemperate (and ill-informed) rant by Simon Jenkins in Tuesday’s Guardian, claiming that the pointy tower ‘seems to have lost its way from Dubai to Canary Wharf’ and has ‘slashed the face of London for ever’. 

At the other end of town, and the other end of various kinds of scale (sublime / ridiculous? - but which way round?), the recently completed visitors’ entrance to Kensington Palace – initially refused planning permission by Kensington and Chelsea Council  –  prompted former RIBA President Jack Pringle’s memorable accusation that Prince Charles was  "pimping his palace with a puffed-up porch”.

If you’d prefer to live in a twenty-first century state rather than the Ruritanian / feudal model of our country that has been in evidence through the course of the Jubilee (yes, I’m with Jack on this one…), then you’re not going to go for a neo-Regency porch, however elegant; and if you don’t like outward and very visible signs of foreign wealth taking over from the home-grown variety in our capital, then the Shard is going to upset you, and you are never going to be able to consider it an architectural masterpiece. 

Little of the discussion of either project is really about architecture or urbanism.   This is something that cloud capp’d towers and gorgeous palaces will always have in common – along with the fact that neither of these particular projects seems a very good fit with the mood of Austerity Britain, which is better represented by the New Boring movement.