Eric Kuhne: Now he's whipping up a storm in Jersey

The creator of Bluewater is used to scandalising traditionalists. But are his ideas too lofty for this emphatically low-rise island?
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The Independent Online

"I was in a boat with the director of the Waterfront Enterprise Board, and a yacht passed in front of the red granite cliffs. I turned to him and said: 'We need to capture the image of that gossamer sail against the red granite,'" says Kuhne. So three priapic towers were conceived, like the diaphanous sails of three ships lined up at a regatta, façades of frosted white glass billowing out of the red bases of the buildings. The ideas came thick and fast - 500 flats, a dozen restaurants for alfresco dining, little shops and chandleries.

It was to be part of a £350m scheme to make Jersey's harbour the largest waterfront scheme in Europe. A new hotel, a new business district, parks dubbed "a string of pearls" were all in the wrap. But Kuhne's towers were a step too far. A television poll in early July showed 459 residents in favour and 836 against. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, and the Société Jersiaise, which promotes Jersey's heritage and culture, raised serious objections. And now the developer Dandara has withdrawn the plans for the towers. A new design will be presented in the New Year.

Had Kuhne wanted to turn sweet little Jersey, home of Bergerac, into another London Docklands? "God, no. That's like Gotham City - all locked carparks and security entrances," he says. "The ground plan in Jersey belongs to the citizens - hotel lobbies, restaurants, gardens, galleries, museums, assembly rooms. It is Jersey's only long-term hope. The waterfront at the moment is insidious, full of busted concrete, ugly as sin. And you can't eat alfresco." Kuhne throws up his hands in horror.

There is no doubt that Jersey is facing an identity crisis, as tax exiles are attracted elsewhere and tourism tempts the binge drinkers, but to put high-rise buildings on an island that is so emphatically low rise? Kuhne starts to wax lyrical about church spires, castles and palaces. "It is good to have a skyline silhouette that a child can draw. It becomes part of the cognitive map."

It occurs to me that this American, regarded as too commercial by some and ignored by architectural writers, has become rather good at selling England back to the English. In Bluewater, the project for which we know him best, there are hints of the oast house; the Wintergarden is based on Decimus Burton's Palm House at Kew; and the handkerchief roofs are drawn from Sir John Soane's Bank of England trading rooms. The parks and carparks, too, are filled with English flowering orchards and wild flowers.

"Bluewater is a modern archeological dig, as if chiselled out of the chalk itself, like a modern mythological city," Kuhne says. "You can't diss it. It cut unemployment from 18 per cent to 2 per cent at a stroke. It brought posh shops to a poor side of Kent. It extended the average shopping trip to three and a half hours, which is nearly five times the national average."

And now Kuhne is the wizard behind Ebbsfleet, the 1,000 acres that will connect Bluewater to the Channel Tunnel, creating 10,000 homes in more chalk quarries. This time, Kuhne has drawn on the pattern of the English town. Five villages each have access to parks and a 100-acre lake. It is all in hand already. He has seen off a supermarket giant and opted for corner shops, putting schools and health centres at the heart of each village square.

He tells his architectural philosophy like the beginning of a story. "If you got into a taxi with a series of people at random and said: 'Take me to your most sacred place', they would take you to incredible places, like a pagoda in a park, an inscription on a stone wall, a hut on a cliff. These things become the bones of the town's agenda and its civic values. The architect needs to reach deep down and refresh it. It is not that different to writing a poem or a song."

But he has been accused of trying to turn Jersey into Monte Carlo. "Oh, yeah," he says. "They say to me - go back to Manhattan. I am a large and slow-moving target so it's easy to say." What he will do is go back to the drawing board and dig deep into what makes Jersey tick in order to find the solution.