Architect Charles Holland
The walk from Capel-le-Ferne to Deal, on the east Kent coast, takes in a remarkable landscape. There are the undulating chalk downs that rise gently up towards the sea before dropping vertiginously away to the English Channel below. There are the remains of military defences from centuries of conflict: Tudor castles, Napoleonic forts, early twentieth century sound mirrors, second world war pill boxes and cold-war radar stations.
There is the entirely man-made stretch of coast at Samphire Hoe – named after a line in Shakespeare’s King Lear and formed from the soil spill from the Channel Tunnel excavations – and the docks at Dover’s east harbour; a vast piece of industrial infrastructure.
And then there are the towns and villages: Capel-le-Ferne – a gaggle of houses on the cliffs – Dover with its incredible seafront, the seaside villages of St. Margaret’s Bay and Kingsdown and the old town of Deal with its elegant 18th century streets.
Like a lot of the UK it is not quite the place of popular imagination. It is certainly a landscape of natural beauty and heritage trails, but it is also a place of transport logistics and contemporary infrastructure. Its shingle beaches mean that it has never been as popular with holidaymakers as Margate and Ramsgate further round the coast, so other industries and activities have taken precedence. It overlooks the busiest shipping lane in the world and from the top of the white cliffs you can watch an endless convoy of ferries, freight and container ships passing through it. And on a clear day, the coast of France is within touching distance, reminding us that geographically at least we are indisputably Europeans.
What is the role of contemporary architecture in this landscape? How do we build new things that both respect this history and move it forward? East Kent is not a place one immediately associates with modern architecture. There are no heroic art galleries, no new towns or bold new housing experiments. But there are important examples of contemporary architecture both from the twentieth century and – most importantly – the twenty first century. Given that we are still only in the second decade of our current century there are a surprising amount and it is these that have given rise to the CHALKUP21 trail.
We have become perhaps used to regarding new buildings and developments as intrusions or threats to our way of life. We are used to the protests that often precede them and the resistance to new development that seems endemic in our country. Sometimes, our misgivings about new buildings seem fair enough. Sometimes they are poorly constructed and insensitive, or simply unexciting, failing to capture our imagination.
You could say that we live in profoundly nostalgic times. This nostalgia now includes the social democratic modernism of the mid-twentieth century as much as Georgian streets, Roman ports or Napoleonic hill forts. But modernism has not gone away. It has only speeded-up. It has encroached on and transformed every corner of our lives. What has changed is that we have stopped celebrating this or wanting to give it expression.
But this only makes it more important to celebrate the really good stuff, the buildings that do what they do well, that add to and improve our lives. And we can get excited again, look forward and celebrate the new. Even in a landscape imbued with so much history: perhaps especially in such a landscape.
CHALKUP21 is an important project because it draws attention to nine very recent examples of art and architecture between located on the coast between Capel-le-Ferne and Deal. They vary in size and use, ambition and style. They employ different materials, some advanced and innovative and some deliberately reviving very old building techniques. Some are declamatory and highly visible, others more modest and tucked away. They are good, contemporary buildings and artworks that add to our enjoyment of this part of the world.
There is a lot of history in this part of Kent and there are a lot of art and heritage trails. CHALKUP21 is not just another one because the era it celebrates is our current one. It asks us to look at the world around us in a different way, to see how we can positively contribute to it and how it is evolving. The artworks and buildings that form the trail will become history in time, of course, and CHALKUP21 will continue to mark them. But what is important and liberating is to mark them now, as this new landscape is emerging.
The statutory listing process in the UK, the mechanism that decides what aspects of our built environment are worth preserving, operates on a minimum thirty-year rule. Buildings need to have been around for at least three decades before they can be considered for statutory preservation. They have to weather the slings and arrows of fashioanability and public disapproval first and stand the test of time. That’s all well and good but sometimes we need to be less circumspect. CHALKUP21 throws that kind of caution to the wind and gets the bunting out early. Why wait?