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Local distinctiveness: What is it?

Local design consultant Ken Davis appreciates the range of architectural styles to be seen around Hastings. But he is concerned that rather than embracing the resulting character of local distinctiveness, planning policy consistently calls for congruency with existing buildings. All photos by the writer.

One of the things I like most about life are the paradoxes it throws up, perhaps none more so than now in corona times. Take for example that this town we live in is so idiosyncratic and that is why so many people love it and so many people love to come for a visit.

Take for another example that one could be mistaken at times for thinking this town is full of artists, though some would also allude to being graphic designers or, heaven forbid, even craftsmen. And these visually and even tactilely aware people love the hugely varied urban/architectural environment we embrace. Indeed, as do most Hastleons I come across.

St Leonards Church, useful landmark.

When I was young my father once told me you could tell what sort of person a man was by the directions he gave i.e. by churches or pubs (far too narrow of course). Both had significance and value in locating where you were, and many are still distinctive elements in a neighbourhood (such as St Leonards Church and Crowleys Bar). Now more than ever, with fewer churches and pubs, consciously or not, in an urban area, many people use buildings as visual reference points.

Architecture as liaison

We are now used to ‘modern’ art as a device to challenge convention and the status quo, indeed to be iconoclastic rather than iconic, and yet seemingly fail to recognise that architecture is a liaison, or subtle fluctuating balance, between art and science. The paradox then is why, in a town that is so proud and supportive of its artistic endeavours, can we not actively support buildings which are ‘different’ and so add to local distinctiveness?

Marine Court: once shocking, now familiar.

We all know of course of the iconic net drying towers in the old town (there from way back) and of Marine Court (a shock at the time but now a familiar face). And, a little further afield, we all know of the De La Warr Pavilion and that it is definitely not Hastings. But shock horror, what do we find at the DLWP? It does not stand in singular congruent isolation but close to very different stylistic (visually incongruent?) structures…and yet it seems to work.

Even in Hastings the net drying towers now not only look very different in their modern facings from the originals but sit alongside other buildings that are not all small on plan and very tall. So how does that work?

Display of time

The charm and visual appeal of the Old Town of course is that it is not only an amalgam of incongruent forms and materials but its constituent parts have been welded together over a long time. It is that very display of time that tells us not only that we are in a distinctive place but also illustrates a historic story by portraying architectural stylistic change through the ages.

Why then is asking for congruency such a consistent theme in planning policy when one of the most appealing things about this artistic place is its very incongruency?

Towers and turrets are popular features in Hastings buildings.

The Piece of Cheese off All Saints Street in the Old Town – said to be the only three-cornered cottage in England.

 

Of course, we are very lucky in Hastings not only to have some very characterful and distinctive areas but also a wide range of distinctive buildings and building elements. One of the latter is the use of towers or turrets on even quite modest buildings either to permit an enhanced view or simply to make the building stand out, and why not?

Should we continue to seek visual refuge in congruency (usually meaning copying a nearby building) when this can often lead to historic confusion, or should we seek out clear expressions of the age we live in i.e. contemporary design?

I look forward to seeing comments on this issue before moving on to show what modern distinctiveness can deliver, just as it has in the past.

 

Posted 15:53 Wednesday, Nov 11, 2020 In: Architecture and Design

8 Comments

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  1. Anne Scott

    Interesting topic, just a point to correct the ‘net drying towers’ are not for drying nets but storing them. The net shops were needed when nets were made of natural material which would rot if left out on the beach. These were dried outside then stored till required. Separate floors for different types of net used in different fishing methods and seasons.

    Comment by Anne Scott — Monday, Nov 16, 2020 @ 11:49

  2. Bolshie

    In total agreement with Mr Madden and Vitrusvius comments here on their views of why there has been such bad planning decisions and blots on the landscape.
    Apart from the people in the Planning Office who don’t really care about architectural quality, they are bound by current policies where the subject of “congruency” is the last of their priorities.
    We have a situation where planning departments will accept nearly anything submitted to them. Look at two examples – large and small. Archery Road a development in a sensitive area of Burton St. Leonards that is effectively a blot on the landscape – no “congruency” whatsoever just packing units on a site damaged by poor planning decisions with the college back in the 60’s.
    On something smaller, there is a town house at the end of a Victorian terrace on Gillsmans Hill that was given delegated permission because the planning officer at theat time consider it to be “Quirky.” A ridiculous reason for what is way out of character for the immediate area.
    On top of that councils are now under the threat of Planning Appeals by developers if they do not pass an application. They fear the thousands it will cost them if they lose an appeal. So too often Planning Committee chairpersons will be reminding members if they don’t pass it, how it could go to appeal.
    Finally HBC in particular as a local authority cares more about unit numbers with developments than the quality in an application-hence the propensity of ugly eyesore buildings that frankly make you wince when you look at them.
    Nice article Ken and something that needed to be raised.

    Comment by Bolshie — Monday, Nov 16, 2020 @ 09:10

  3. Michael Madden

    Vitruvius is right – contemporary architectural design should reflect its time. The problem is that, in a way, it does. What do we get here when we actually get a new building? A black box or – in the Old Town Rock a Nore area – something resembling a fishing hut. It turns real heritage into a cheap-looking theme park.

    Why? Because the decision-makers (planning officers) are more interested in budgets and deals than in genuinely understanding old or creating new heritage.

    The architecture just reflects the quality of the people who make the decisions. Local planning officers don’t care to understand good contemporary design any more than they care to understand what is good or bad in historic design.

    So the solution to this problem is not architectural as much as political.
    There are good contemporary architects out there, but they rarely get a look in because the council officers tend to favour the same few developers, who in turn favour the same few architects. As long as the council can tick the same old boxes with minimal understanding, education or vision, Hastings will get the same-old same-old attitude to the new and the old.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Friday, Nov 13, 2020 @ 13:04

  4. Vitruvius

    “Firmness, commodity, delight” – an ancient, yet still relevant definition of architecture. Most developments in Hastings provide for the first two but, given the local planners aversion to contemporary design, the elusive third element has little chance of making an appearance locally.

    An even a cursory look around us shows that the urban fabric is the product of a continuum, so why is the insistence on “keeping in keeping” the default setting for our planning department?

    Leaving aside development within Conservation Areas, which demands special consideration, the vast majority of projects built in the present should reflect our times just as those we now most admire reflected theirs. The planners belief that they can freeze history is just as foolish as Canute’s courtiers’ belief that he could stem the tide.

    The key criteria for assessing the value of a project should be the quality of its design, not just its appearance, which takes us back to “firmness, commodity, and delight”.

    A fundamental problem is that most planners have no design training, which possibly accounts for them reaching for the comfort blanket of copying the past. Hastings should follow the lead of more enlightened councils in the UK and appoint an external, well-qualified design panel to make up for its own lack of in-house expertise.

    Comment by Vitruvius — Friday, Nov 13, 2020 @ 10:07

  5. ken davis

    Heather, the thing about distinctiveness is that it is an expression of difference and that scares some people and in a sense I can see why that is, after all familiarity is enormously attractive and comfortable. But if we only pursue the familiar does that not risk taking up sameness and stifling creativity? You are right, the Bohemia area is very special in it’s eclecticism but it is that variation which should be the base for establishing future distinctiveness while conserving the best of the past rather than just copying it.
    And Bea, there are indeed many small but distinctive landmark towers and turrets around the town which would not necessarily suit bland, could be anywhere suburbs but maybe we should explore the possibility of how different building forms might enhance such blandness?
    Michael M: next time for sure!

    Comment by ken davis — Thursday, Nov 12, 2020 @ 18:53

  6. Heather Grief

    Distinctiveness is all part of life’s rich tapestry, or it used to be.
    I do not understand why nearly everything pre-1870 is listed, so long as it is big enough, when nearly everything later is not.
    White Rock Theatre is a nice-looking and distinctive building, no idea who the architect was, but the effect is pleasing, and there must surely be many more years of use left in it. The seating is the main problem – not enough leg-room and generally uncomfortable puts people off going to shows there. If this were improved, maybe it would become a success financially.
    Bohemia should be preserved, simply because it is a crowded working-class suburb and such things have been swept away elsewhere – many inhabitants are very fond of their houses, especially along jumbled-up but still charming Cornfield Terrace.

    Comment by Heather Grief — Thursday, Nov 12, 2020 @ 15:53

  7. Bea

    I have always been struck by the number of one-off houses scattered around the town, yes often with towers, and apologising to nobody! Do they look good next to suburban semis? Not necessarily, but in their own right they are wonderful.

    Comment by Bea — Thursday, Nov 12, 2020 @ 10:04

  8. Michael Madden

    Very true and well put Ken,

    But do you think that this tendency you describe might derive from the fact that planning and conservation officers are given very little in-depth education about how historic architectural styles have changed over the centuries – or even in recent decades – and that they therefore resort to a ‘tick-box’ form of compliance with visual/aesthetic/historical diktats from government departments, who also understand very little?

    It seems to me that Michael Gove’s ridiculous statement that: “We have had enough of experts” is partly to blame. We live in a culture which has very little interest in visual education – especially if it is historical. So very few of our local representatives are taught enough to discriminate between what adds or detracts from the character of Hastings. The White Rock Theatre is another good example – not the greatest building in the world, not the most original, nor by a famous arcitect – therefore not listed. So it does not tick the right boxes. So the council intends to knock it down and put a black box in its place.

    I think the problem is endemic in the country as a whole. Aesthetic education is so low down in the national curriculum as to be almost non-existent.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Wednesday, Nov 11, 2020 @ 22:18

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