Art at the seaside

Bridlington's new artistic creations are not confined to galleries where few will see them; they are incorporated into the seafront so loved by 1.8 million annual visitors. A triumph for inventive architects and an enlightened council, says Jeremy Melvyn
Click to follow
Bridlington. A famous artist was once rumoured to be on his way to Bridlington. "I've never 'eard of 'im," the mayor is said to have replied when the news reached his ears, "but 'e'll love it 'ere. Tis th'artists' paradise." But David Hockney's motive for visiting was to see his mother rather than to paint.

So Bridlington escaped the attention of one artist who could find inspiration in the brash vulgarity of a typical English seaside resort: the endless sand of a 30-mile long beach, the sea, the semi-clothed and partially sunburnt bodies of all shapes, sizes and ages, and the mildly nauseating colours so beloved of makers of plastic seaside toys.

Bridlington's remodelled South Promenade, stretching along about half of the town's seafront, is a far more relevant way of putting the town on an artistic map than a series of Hockney paintings. Exploiting political circumstance to commission modern art and design, it provides something that should appeal to a majority of the town's annual 1.8 million visitors.

Here is a combination of modern design by architect Bauman Lyons, a running text by Mel Gooding, assorted installations by Bruce McLean and a stretch of pavement by Chris Tipping.

These elements are disposed along one nautical mile stretching south from the harbour, which is the base for a small fishing fleet and leisure craft, and divides the town's North Promenade and South Promenade.

Irena Bauman, who led the design team, studied at Liverpool University under John Tarn, to whom she pays tribute as a teacher. Qualifying in the recession, she moved back to Leeds where her family live, her ambitions to work in London thwarted. She set up in practice on her own in 1990, and since 1992 Maurice Lyons has been a partner. Bauman Lyons is making a name for itself locally, and brings a breath of clear, contemporary thinking to the northern architectural scene.

Varying in size between six and nine people, the practice's commissions include leisure and tourism projects in the Leeds docks, a private house and a university bar. With Bridlington's South Promenade, it has made much of an enviable project. Bauman may now be grateful that she did not move to London; it is the kind of project that no London firm has had.

Bauman Lyons has designed several discrete buildings within the overall site. The lavatory block is simple, white and modern from the outside; inside, it combines the toughness of football stand facilities with attractive finishes. The commercial building houses a cafe and deckchair store. The foreshore manager's office (also known as the lifeguard station) is more of a building than the overgrown birdwatching hide of its Baywatch counterpart. Most striking is a series of 30 beach huts, that archetypally simple form so beloved by European rationalists. Each is identifiable by its own asymmetrical double-pitched roof.

The roof distinguishes them from Aldo Rossi's 1970s drawings of beach huts, but most impressive is the deft handling of a few simple elements to create a layering of space between the ultimate small sanctuary of a hut and the public promenade.

Along the front edge of the promenade, set in terrazzo, is Gooding's whimsical text, a tribute to - and collection of impressions of - the town. Moving inland, the ground changes, and a long narrow pool set in a lawn creates a kind of moat in front of the huts. A series of wooden bridges cross the moat, one in front of each hut.

The huts have projecting eaves over simple benches that flank the doors. It is as if a 17th-century Dutch genre streetscape, with elements selected by Herman Hertzberger, had been transferred to Britain's east coast at the end of the 20th century. All the components of urbane urbanism are there, but it is saved from becoming formulaic by a sensitivity to the particularities of the place. The large buildings are set below the escarpment, preserving views and creating a series of terraces leading to the beach. The existing, massive, concrete seawall runs the nautical mile from the harbour to McLean's coloured jetty, which marks the end of the "urban beach".

The actual beach stretches many miles further to the south. Along the promenade human interventions become less obvious and less rigid the greater the distance from the harbour. The paving becomes less insistent, and the street lamps, which feature on the section nearest the harbour, fade away. Architecture gives way to art (insofar as they can be separated in a collaborative project), and then to nature.

Apart from a quantum improvement to the seaside facilities, what the South Promenade represents is a strategy for dealing with a town edge and for creating public space. Dependent on tourism, Bridlington's future demands an attractive promenade, which, if possible, should extend the usable season. Much of the credit for devising the strategy must go to Andrew Knight, now urban design officer for the unified East Riding of Yorkshire Council.

Appointed as public arts officer for the old Humberside County Council in 1992, Knight's department was consulted by East Yorkshire Borough Council over the redevelopment of Bridlington's then shabby promenades. Knight discovered that a capital budget existed for repaving the North Promenade and that, with a little persuasion and some adroit political manoeuvring, this could be exploited for a piece of public art.

Convinced by Knight's presentation, the planning committee offered pounds 12,000, under the impression that it was a great deal of money for mere art. Knight knew it was not, but gratefully accepted. He commissioned some paving from Chris Tipping. It now sits slightly uneasily amid the heritage railings, maroon street furniture and familiar installations of the North Promenade, completed in 1994.

Unsatisfactory though the result may be, it was a crucial first step without which the South Promenade redevelopment could not have happened. It showed that public art could work, and without enormous expense. Attention shifted to the South Promenade.

The old council had a sense of urgency as it was about to be wound up and replaced with a unitary authority. Knight foresaw that there was a window of opportunity for the outgoing council to invest its capital reserves in an imaginative programme of capital improvements. Knowing, too, how lottery funding might go, he set about devising a new plan for the South Promenade.

His first step was to stimulate a "vision". Drawing on contacts in the art world - he is an art school graduate and has worked as an art dealer - he brought in Bruce McLean and avoided the obvious temptation to ask Will Alsop to join the party. The Yorkshire RIBA region recommended Bauman Lyons. By chance, Knight had already met Irena Bauman and been impressed.

Early in 1995, Bauman Lyons, McLean, and Ian Parkin Heritage & Tourism Consultants were commissioned to produce a vision. The result was obviously going to be forward-looking, but it has turned out to be innovative, with the client creatively exploiting circumstance to find new funding opportunities - pounds 1m comes from the Arts Council lottery cache and several hundred thousand pounds from the European Regional Development Fund. Bridlington has also received pounds 3m from the Single Regeneration Budget.

"Good common sense," says Knight. Maybe, but common sense does not account for creativity, or at least the creative use of architectural elements which make the South Promenade a place of endless possibility for social interaction. In other words, a real public placen

This article appears in the June issue of the RIBA magazine.