A Response to the ChalkUp21 Trail - Anna Liu Connecting to Dover

How does a place take root in a person, be it the worker, the scholar, the holiday-maker, or simply, the outsider? Having moved here to Britain 20 years ago, I have only been able to connect to places and people in Britain through the architectural projects I’ve been involved with. Over a span of seven years, our two projects, the Dover Esplanade Three Waves (completed 2010) and Ness Point House (completed 2016), have taken me to Dover and St Margaret’s Bay.  However, since completing these, there have been little time and opportunities for me to return to them.

Working recently on an ocean-inspired project has connected me to Dover once again. Phytoplankton create more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe. Mostly unseen to our eyes but astoundingly beautiful under the microscope, these unsung heroes fall to the bottom of the ocean at the end of their lives.  In time they rise again as the white cliffs of Dover.

An emblem of Britain, these gleamingly white, silent cliffs have been carved into, moved, shaped, for the purpose of mass human movements, during the wartime and since.  4.9 million cubic metres of chalk marl, excavated to create the Channel Tunnel, was moved nearby and created a country park called  Samphire Hoe. At Samphire Hoe, rare orchid species can be found on this seemingly bleak hinterland. Resilient shingle plantings that at first glance seem to be weeds when looked up close, reveal fantastic diversity and beauty. It was here where Mike and I first met the inspiring ranger Paul Holt who through his knowledge of these plants and wildlife, connected us to the landscape at an intimate, small scale.

When we first went to Dover for the Dover Esplanade project, we looked for clues to connect the utilitarian quality of the seafront to the beautiful natural setting. We were delighted to discover the undulating form within Dover Castle, the gentle waves in the bay, and the iconographic white cliffs in the distance.

I was also fascinated with the labyrinth of hollowed out spaces within the cliff, for large masses of people to move through, remnants of its wartime history.  Our son Tainan and his friend Oscar discovered an unsigned hole in the ground near the edge on the cliff-top, which lead to the space within the cliff.  From here, on the edge of the cliff-face, they looked out to the sea.

One of the most satisfying moments for me was the planting day for the Three Waves on the Dover Esplanade.  A year after the project’s completion, seeing how the shingle planting hadn’t flourished, we organised a planting day through Dover Arts Development and RIBA’s “Love Architecture.”   The day involved the local community, our friends, and consultants such as our lighting supplier.  Were it not for the support and organisation of DAD and the RIBA, we could not have pulled it off.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day of meeting Paul Holt again, learning from Paul about shingle plants, planting the plants in the shingle bedding with my own hands, and exchanging emails with local residents who volunteered to water the young plants in the following weeks.

Years later, by complete coincidence, after finishing our work for the Dover Esplanade, we were approached by a private client to design a house on the cliff-top in the village of St Margaret’s Bay.  Having spent his youth here in his parents’ house on a beautiful site fronting the Leigh, our client wished to build a house for his children and future grandchildren, on the land gifted to him by his parents.

The building took shape with the form of the dramatic triangular site, where two roads met. One road sloped steeply towards the sea, whilst the other road is flat and populated with neighbouring village houses.  Being an invaluable SSSI, Site of Special Scientific Interest, our biodiversity survey report outlined chalk-land species and wildlife that would go on to inform and inhabit the green roof in our design for the Ness Point House.

As was the case with The Three Waves, we have not been back to visit Ness Point House since its final completion. We were delighted to receive a photo from a friend, Kelly Hill, who was walking along the white cliffs.  The photo showed how the green roof had thickened and changed and flourished.

How does a place take root in a person? Dover has continued to gently take root in me, year after year, and as I continue to journey to other places, learning to experience places through the intimate, the microscopic, and the epic scales, through a grand sense of time.

Anna Liu, 30thAugust, 2018