Something new under the sun

The humble beach hut might seem a more likely object for nostalgia than architectural innovation. So how did a new development of marine chalets in the Yorkshire resort of Bridlington find itself nominated as one of the 50 Buildings of the Year?
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The Independent Online

They belong to that vaguest of landscapes, the littoral where nature and the doings of the leisured come together. It is the same along any stretch of habitable coastline. Waves spread up the beach in splays of sodden lace and encounter what two millennia of civilisation deems suitable as a buffer to nature: bright plastic buckets and stubby digging forks whose tines are swollen as if with elephantiasis; sand varicosed with hand-dug channels and pits; running feet; the skid and bounce of pimpled balls and dayglo frisbees; striped windbreaks skewing in the breeze.

They belong to that vaguest of landscapes, the littoral where nature and the doings of the leisured come together. It is the same along any stretch of habitable coastline. Waves spread up the beach in splays of sodden lace and encounter what two millennia of civilisation deems suitable as a buffer to nature: bright plastic buckets and stubby digging forks whose tines are swollen as if with elephantiasis; sand varicosed with hand-dug channels and pits; running feet; the skid and bounce of pimpled balls and dayglo frisbees; striped windbreaks skewing in the breeze.

But most important of all: beach huts, those queer regiments of eternally damp, salt-rimed cubicles with rusting Chubb locks so often suited with mini-macintoshes of house-proud plastic to keep the spray off. Yet these pumped-up Wendy houses cannot quite be dismissed as inconsequential, can they? They are, after all, the first architecture that would be seen by a barnacled kraken, or by sailors drifting ashore on a swell through muslins of mist, or espied by post-Ecstatic clubbers stumbling into the dawn along the shingle.

But here at Bridlington, on the Yorkshire coast, on the promenade above the wonderfully capacious bight of sand, are marine chalets of quite a different order; so much so that they, and the rest of the town's south foreshore development, have been nominated as one of the 50 Buildings of the Year by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The huts are in lustrous, and not-so-lustrous, company. Among the raft of big-hair finalists are the London Eye, Sir Norman Foster's Canary Wharf Underground station and Lord Rogers' Dome. None of those - and it is a notable drawback - come equipped with personal sink, electricity laid on and beach chairs for £62 a week.

Like most commercially-tuned seasides, Bridlington's south foreshore development is both surreal and ordinary. Bauman Lyons Architects, working with artist Bruce McLean and writer Mel Gooding, have delivered something chic in an eclectic way, and yet not peculiar enough to seem in any way absurd or pretentious.

They have conspired to bring something sensuous and new to a small town seeking to recapture the commercial glory days, whose suns sank inexorably in the west with the pit closures in Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire: Bridlington had been hugely popular with holidaying miners' families. The place is a deal quieter now - but if the beach scene last week is anything to go by, the old sea dog appears to have learned one or two new tricks and is deploying them with panache.

Bauman Lyons has dished up a pretty interesting spread, a kit of interlocking architectural parts setting a precedent that will be followed by other architects and developers. The Bridlington scheme is not - as, for example, in the recent seafront changes at Brighton - a broad-brush and blousyish makeover. It is something absolutely fresh, crisp as a lettuce; ideal accompaniment to precisely marcelled waves platinumed by the late August sun.

But that isn't where the success of the project lies. The asymmetric elevations and sharp detailing of the beach huts, the throwback modernist bulge of the Headland Café, the 1930s-style railings, the rather outré V-winged roof of the beach office, and the beautiful precision of the promenade lighting standards, receding into the pearly southern haze like slim yacht masts, are all delightful.

Even so, this architecture succeeds, not through its stylistic sleight-of-hand, but because its overall presence is subtle - and because the people who use it rather like it. It's an important point: the East Riding of Yorkshire Council and its then arts officer Andrew Knight did not collar the best part of £5m from the Arts Council Lottery fund and other sources simply to put something prettily gauche on the beach.

They wanted to put Bridlington back on the northern holidaymakers' map. To do that, the foreshore had to look smart and be absolutely functional - acceptable to those who would also happily indulge ravening appetites at the Cuppa Snack Bar or the Pavarotti Pizzeria 200m away.

"The seafront is the town's big asset," says Knight. "It was a fairly typical depressed English seaside scene that looked as though nobody cared about it. It had that transient feel - that kind of place that closed at five and shut down at the end of August. It was sad."

There was nothing sad about the scene midweek. The beach under the south foreshore was a confetti of people, plastic goods and cheerful activity. Bridlington's shiny white toytown train was footle-tooting along the promenade - and the sward in front of the 30 or so beach huts was packed.

"We normally have beach huts," said Adrian Watkinson at Number 4. "Yarmouth and Cromer and Skegness we've been to. We got told this was a new development, so we expected it to be good. It's everything we expected, really. They seem very popular - there's none vacant. When I booked the hotel, I never heard anything bad about the place."

"And they've got electric," says his mother-in-law, June Beadell. "At Yarmouth and Cromer and them, they're just huts. These are by far the more sturdy and everything; good solid doors and good solid locks."

Opposite Number 4, across the thin strip of grass and the narrowly rectilinear paddling pool that runs continuously along the length of the parade of beach huts, is a terrazzo sculpture - something like a sunburned chaise longue - by Bruce McLean. What did they think of it? "I like it," said Watkinson's young son, Gary. "It's better than just plain concrete."

"Oh, up for a prize, is it?" asks Deborah Parkin at Number 24, who is sitting with her mother, Doreen Hartley. "Well, I'm not surprised. It's very nice. I think it's improved Bridlington - it's more family-friendly. And you've got the paddling pool."

"Yes, and you've a job to get one of these huts," adds Mrs Hartley. "You have to put your name down a year in advance, and there's no guarantee that you'll get one."

But the acid test for the south foreshore development can be be found at Number 9. Brian Jarvis has come to Brid since 1947, and his father before him. His wife Eileen - they're from Nottingham - hands down the verdict. "These are stupendous now to what they used to be," she declares. "It used to be just grass and huts. They've made it terrific. My son is 37 and he still comes. We've always had a chalet. Just the hut and two deck chairs it was before, and you had to fetch the water - very basic. They were on about a marina, but I didn't want it spoiled. We didn't know what they were going to do, like. But we still wanted to have a chalet.

"An architecture prize? I didn't think it were going to be that good." She tells her grandson, face occluded in the shadow of a bulbous Postman Pat hat, to fetch dad. Brian Jarvis appears, panting slightly, and wistful. "My father used to go down to the spa and say, could I book a chalet. And they'd tell you the latter end of January. Now, we do it the first week we come. My family goes away to other places but I'll be honest - if they haven't been to Bridlington, they haven't been on a holiday."

"We had a seat dedicated at the top," says Eileen. "A memorial. Jack from the hotel did it for Brian's mum and dad, Win and Ted. They'd be over the moon to see this now. Ted was a stickler for children's safety, he was. A stickler."

And then an intriguing closure to the conversation. "I hope this wins the award," says Eileen. There is a steady conviction in her words, informed with the realisation that her family's chosen summer land could be endorsed for all the world to see.

"It'd be nice," says Brian, who patently wants to get back to his game of cricket on the strand.

"It's our second home, really," says Eileen. "It is to me. It's good here."

The exchange reveals two important things about the foreshore development: that, even after such a short existence, it has been assimilated apparently seamlessly into the local scene, arty bits and all; and it has engendered an immediate and distinct pride of place. This, in such a publicly demanding milieu, is the most significant claim to effectiveness that Bauman Lyons's architecture can make.

Walking back to the station from the upper foreshore is equally interesting, a kind of regression into the past. The lissome blonde lifeguard - the Bridwatch Babe? - standing on the capstones of the foreshore wall gazing out across the glazed sand towards the clench of gritstone blocks in the harbour wall. And then ambling past the Spa Theatre and its Laughter Show, featuring Paul Shane and his Star Guests, Paul Melba and the Vernon Girls (shouldn't that be "Ladies"?). The Tillie Morrison bar comes and goes, along with the Pavarotti Pizzeria and the Brunswick Hotel where an elderly man is singing, vibrato con brio to a karaoke backing track. It could be "Three Coins in a Fountain" or "Wonderwall", such is the glutinating effect of his ferocious tremolo.

And then up Quay Street with the holidaymakers, past Krop Shop and Le Salon de Coiffure; left at the shut-down Kiddywinks and down the slip road to the rampantly flower-basketed railway station to the waiting 2.56pm Northern Spirit to Doncaster.

Bridlington's sharp-as-a-tack foreshore - the plashing children, the prom lamps that wouldn't be out of place at Cap Ferrat, the turquoise gash of the kiddies' paddling strip in front of the huts that would, and the faith of the ever-returning Jarvises - begins to evaporate.

Was that really the place where medieval labourers once took to sea in their coracles; the settlement which in prehistoric times was believed to have been the terminus of a great trade route that stretched across northern England to the Irish Sea?

Bridlington's considerable history fades inexorably as the electric train tickety-tacks through Beverley, Hull and the towns that must have been familiar to genteel tourists in the 18th century; visitors whose legacy can still be seen in the bow windows and Georgian doorways in Queen Square, Prospect Street and Manor Street.

The train ambles on: North Ferriby, Brough, Gilberdyke, Goole - the towns familiar to those who once made Bridlington a resort to be reckoned with and gave it its first notable architecture. The owner of the camera shop in the centre of town had said: "It's very nice, what they've done. But the truth is, we need more people coming."

Perhaps, lured by the svelte new development, more will come to this particular margin between the sea and the town's brave new - and rather rakish - urbanity. The Jarvis family will certainly be back next year, Brian to play cricket on a slow turner below the prom. They've booked already, one family among many who - to quote from Mel Gooding's stream-of-consciousness text set into the prom's terrazzo - will become unwitting "composers of the South Strand Opera on this North Sea shore".