A Breath of Sea Air; Jenny Steele and Buildings for Hope

by Sara Jaspan 

 


The Tropical Garden, digital print on vinyl, The Midland Morecambe rotunda window, 2017

 

 

I.

The prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize for best UK building of the year in 2017 went not to a building, but to a pier. A 144-year-old pier. Or, rather, a phoenix risen from the ashes. The Hastings Pier has recently reopened to the public after having been almost entirely destroyed by a fire in 2010. Its renovation is largely thanks to the people of Hastings, who banded together to secure Lottery funding for the project, and match-funded the amount through a shares-based crowdsourcing campaign (hence the pier's new nickname; 'the People's Pier').

The design, by architect de Rijke Marsh Morgan, is entirely unrecognisable from the tragically dilapidated yet classic piece of seaside Victoriana that preceded it, and the very antithesis of seaside nostalgia chic. A wide open, sweeping, minimalist platform jutting out into pure vastness; it has an almost utopian vibe, actively referencing the sense of tranquillity, rejuvenation and wellbeing that has long been associated with the sea. Indeed, an inherent optimism surrounds the entire project. Not only has the new pier brought jobs, thousands more visitors and a huge economic boost; it also tells the story of a community in one of the country's most depressed areas fighting for both its past and future. As one local put it, the previous structure was "a symbol of Hastings in decline and all the problems that we have had in the past." The People's Pier marks a fresh start.

Architecture is intrinsically linked with fresh starts, new beginnings and optimistic hopes for the future; 'building for a better tomorrow'. Yet it also tells us a great deal about the spirit, conditions and narratives of the past - and history does indeed have a cyclical nature. The sense of resilience exemplified through the recent success of Hastings Pier, and the wider great British seaside revival of the last decade more generally, bring to mind another story of architectural hope and optimism coalescing around the coast, nearly a century ago. It must be something in the sea air…

 

 

II.

Following the trauma of WWI came a social emphasis towards health and wellbeing, which crystallised in part around the long-held restorative, rejuvenating benefits of the seaside. The first-ever national allocation of one week's holiday for all, and more efficient rail travel, allowed thousands to journey to the coast, where a whole swathe of hotels, pavilions, open-air lidos, concert halls and 'Palaces of Fun' sprang up to provide spaces of pleasure, recreation and relaxation for locals and visitors. Unlike the reserved tones of the Victorian and Edwardian architecture that stood alongside (belonging to an earlier generation of seaside tourism), the style of these new buildings - known as Seaside Moderne - was marked by space, light and a playful, simplified energy expressed through graceful sweeping curves, horizontal lines, nautical flourishes and bright touches of colour.

It is this confluence of distinct psychogeography, and the architectural expression of resilience and optimism (in the wake of world war and the face of 1930s economic depression), that first captivated visual artist Jenny Steele, and which she seeks to interpret and revive through her work.

 

 

III.

So how do you capture a spirit, energy or epoch? Steele's approach is every bit as light and playful as her subject matter; imbued with an essence of joy and freedom, yet simultaneously underpinned by rigorous research and substance as she homes in on intricate, exact architectural details and riffs off a wider network of cultural references, resonances and historic significances.

Previous exhibitions, such as An Architecture of Joy (2016) at The Grundy in Blackpool, have formed a creative response to important, less documented, examples of Seaside Moderne architecture across North England and Scotland. Iconic buildings like the Blackpool Opera House or Rothesay Pavilion in Bute are transposed into colourful prints and wallpapers; their individual idiosyncrasies (unusual light fittings, air vents or detailed façades) forming abstract patterns of repeated motifs. While other pieces, such as The Marriage 1/2 and 2/2 (2016) or The Wheel of Fortune (2016), incorporate articles of art deco furniture. Yet a better preface to Steele's work might simply be a gentle stroll along any British seaside promenade; as the overarching impetus behind all her prints, sculptures and interventions seem located in the bracing energy of a salty breeze.

Steele's latest exhibition, however, signals a turn in a more expansive, all-encompassing, transatlantic direction.

 

 

IV.

This Building for Hope (2017) could perhaps be described using the same (Bauhaus) expression as the design principle of the building that housed and partly inspired it; 'a total work of art'.

Designed by architect Oliver Hill, The Midland Hotel in Morecambe is one of the best known examples of 1930s Seaside Moderne in North England. Its curved exterior (reminiscent of a ship) was one of the first of its type, while its interior features artworks by some of the most prominent artists of the day; including four sculptures by Eric Gill, original carpet and mosaic designs by Marion Dorn and, originally, a mural by Eric Ravilious. When it opened in 1933, the hotel was lauded by the architectural press as 'the apotheosis of contemporary design,' and frequented by the rich and famous (while locals and less wealthy visitors were confined to the adjoining Rotunda Bar, if they wanted a more affordable slice of the glamour). Though The Midland's fortunes later waned following the outbreak of WWII, when it became an RAF hospital, and then rapidly declined with the drop in seaside tourism brought about by cheap flights abroad, it has since been restored to an updated version of its former glory, reopening to visitors in 2008 as a living, breathing Seaside Moderne hotel.

Steele's exhibition took place almost as one complete installation, situated in and around the building and along Morecambe's nearby promenade. The result was both disorientating and entrancing as the artwork mirrored and chimed so closely with the artistry of the surrounding environment which partly inspired it, that the two began to merge; boundaries and timeframes collapsing in on one another.

 

 

V.

This Building for Hope also drew on a new wave of inspiration. Alongside works that referenced examples of British Seaside Moderne; a transatlantic theme also materialised, following Steele's recent research trip to Miami Beach in Florida (where the movement later spread and which now has the largest concentration of Seaside Moderne architecture in the world). Miami's Colony Theatre, Cavalier Hotel and Ciccios were reconfigured as a series of painted polystone and fibreglass 'spouting fountains', referencing the symbol of upward progress that appears throughout the city's buildings of that period, as well as the abundance of palm trees that were artificially introduced to Miami to create a tropical environment. While the Exotic Gardens (designed by John Collins, a Quaker land developer who created much of the initial area of Miami Beach) provided the referent behind an abstract window diorama created on the inside of the bar area's rotunda window.

 

 

VI.

Research is as much a part of Steele's artistic practice as the physical act of making. Not only has her interest in Seaside Moderne seen her travel across the UK, and now the Atlantic, but also gained her access to important archives, which would normally be off-limits to the general public. While such activities are partly driven by Steele's love of these buildings, they also connect with an important wider narrative within the history of Seaside Moderne: preservation.

Morecambe and Hastings are far from the only examples of British seaside towns to have seen better days, and many of the architectural gems of these costal locations have fallen into similar states of disrepair over the years. As with the People's Pier, their survival has at times depended upon the passion and fortitude of the local community. The Midland, for example, being rescued from demolition in 2002 by the lobbying of the Friends of The Midland society, while the Rothesay Pavilion secured national funding in 2015 for its renovation and conversion into an arts-centre (due to open in 2018), partly thanks to a public appeal launched in 2008 for personal memories attached to the building. Even over in Florida, the Miami Design Preservation League was set up during the 1980s as a similar grassroots response to the threat of demolition.

 

 

VII.

The irony of awarding the RIBA Stirling Prize not to a building but to a space is short-lived. As Steele comments throughout her work, place and architecture create the 'stage set' that frames our experiences and impacts on our behaviour - actively encouraging relaxation and enjoyment in the case of Seaside Moderne. Yet despite the joyful, utopian exuberance encapsulated in her sculptures, prints and installations in reference to the 1930s, it is hard not to experience a tinge of sadness as we peruse Steele's work from the perspective of a new century characterised by a far less optimistic view of the future and diminishing levels of provision for social wellbeing. Indeed, what sets the Hastings Pier project apart is its unusual status as a high-quality public space intended solely for the purpose of recreation.

But perhaps Steele's work also contains a message of optimism for the present. Like the Hasting's Pier, the reopening of The Midland Hotel has been key to Morecambe's recent lift in fortunes (winning it the local nickname 'Morecambe's White Hope'), and several of the other buildings she responds to have played similar roles in the regeneration of Britain's shoreline towns.

 

 

VIII.

What is it about these coastal regions that lends them such resilience? While still lumbered by a sense of Victorian Punch-and-Judy, ice-cream fuelled nostalgia, the seaside also occupies a much deeper place in our shared psychology. The sea is where we escape to when all goes wrong; its vastness lending a sense of proportion and tranquillity. Indeed, scientists have recently proven that experiences of calmness and enjoyment are more likely to occur in 'blue space', while the French writer Romain Rolland's 1927 coining of the phrase 'oceanic feeling' in reference to the sensation of being 'one' with the universe, has always rung true.

It seems Steele may be on to something in her work. Maybe it's time we took a step back and reconnected with Seaside Moderne's message of place-led rejuvenation and began to value the seaside for what it is; not the perfect destination for a stag-do getaway, but a means by which to rediscover our sense of joy.

 

 

 

Sara Jaspan is a freelance arts writer and editor based in Manchester. She contributes to Art Monthly, Aesthetica, AN News, Artsy, Corridor8, This Is Tomorrow and other titles; manages PAPER gallery's online magazine; and is the Creative Tourist Exhibitions Editor and Corridor8 Regional Editor.