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Will Wiles

Will Wiles strolls along the prom, and finds it wanting

They call it 'Great’ Yarmouth but really it’s just OK Yarmouth. What would Make Yarmouth Great Again would be a splendid modernist megastructure, a slab wall facing out to the North Sea, balconies glittering in the sunrise, and perhaps the whole thing could ripple, suggestive of waves on the beach. Or ziggurats – they’ve always been popular.

In the absence of other pressing national priorities, I say we get on and make this happen right away. It has always seemed strange that, though we built motorways, vast housing estates and International Style offices and hotels in city centres, the UK never got a properly modernist stretch of seaside. The first family holidays we took abroad were to Brittany in France, and the gleaming white citadels of resorts such as La Baule might have been from another world – think of the astonishing curved fins of the Wave Building, which was more Galactic than Loire-Atlantique.

The vast expanses of scoured sand helped frame the impression, which is why I suggest Merely Adequate Yarmouth, although it’s partly also payback for a sub-par week I spent there 20 years ago. And it’s in Norfolk, where as luck would have it Denys Lasdun has already built a superb prototype for the kind of resort hotel I have in mind, although due to an oversight it is quite far inland and filled with students from the University of East Anglia.

A little hard to imagine, isn’t it? That simply isn’t the way we have developed our coast, and looking at the less planned stretches of the Mediterranean, we dodged some disasters as well as all the triumphs. Instead we are largely left with resorts inherited from the Victorians, and little of their ambition to build by the sea. Decades of unfashionability and neglect also worked their powers of preservation, as Britons went abroad from the 1970s and there was little need to brush off Le Corbusier’s proposals for Algiers as a possible option for Broadstairs.

The Victorians loved the seaside because they believed it possessed health-restoring powers. And it did in a way, just by getting them away from the polluted and toxic cities.

Denys Lasdun has already built a superb prototype for the kind of resort hotel I have in mind, although due to an oversight it is quite far inland and filled with students from the University of East Anglia

In other words, the Victorians used the seaside as a way of escaping from the ecological consequences of their society. Today, the seaside may be the place where those consequences are felt earliest and most keenly. In a warmer, stormier future, we will have to invest millions, hundreds of millions, in protecting the shoreline of this island. Which is the underlying paradox of seaside architecture: it has been a bit brutal all along. The bow windows and tea rooms are held safe by many tonnes of uncompromising concrete, shaped into sea walls with scalloped profiles not unlike Victorian mouldings, but on an altogether different scale. Sea defences have a primal modernism all of their own: consider the tetrapod, the four-footed, poured concrete objects that are piled along shores and moles to break the force of the waves.

Why should we think about the seaside at all right now? Out-of-season resorts have a melancholy appeal that’s unlikely to draw in holidaymakers; they need an economic model that doesn’t depend on the variable British summer. The time is ripe for an architectural rediscovery of the seaside town. It’s cheering that dRMM’s Hastings Pier was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize this year. And, reflecting on it, piers in general suggest that the Victorians might have been well aware of the architectural paradoxes of the resort. They balance heavy engineering with considerable delicacy, a feat the Victorians perfected. It’s a combination that matches their faintly absurd mismatch of form and function – all this blunt, difficult intrusion into the pounding, corroding ocean, solely for the purpose of entertainment and distraction. Behind the peeling paint of the amusements and the faded 19th-century gentility, the off-season seaside resort always provides a great deal of stimulus to new architecture. It really is so bracing. 

Will Wiles is a journalist and author