St Leonard’s-on-Sea in East Sussex was laid out as a new town in the 19th Century
Perhaps ‘genteel housing development’ better describes architect James Burton’s original plans for St Leonard’s. Today, what’s left of Burton’s scheme has been absorbed into the rambling townscape of Mega-Hastings.
Like most seaside towns, there’s a sense the place has seen better days. But then nobody looks their best on a freezing February afternoon, when it seems even the seagulls are staying indoors.
While Burton’s Victorian new town gave me a pretext to take the almost two-hour rail trip to St Leonard’s, what I really wanted to see were the later additions. Like Marine Court, a vast beached ocean-liner of a building: all curves, decks and even the odd porthole.
When it was completed in 1937, Marine Court was the tallest block of flats in the UK. But as well as the very big, St Leonard’s offers more scaled-down modernist treats. Like the shelters on the seafront: miniature tours de force in glass and concrete.
Concrete doesn’t often seem at home in Britain. It’s difficult and costly to maintain. It stains and crumbles in our damp climate. Exposed concrete takes on an oppressive character: the flat matt greys somehow intensify the greys of our wet northern skies.
And concrete has acquired guilt by association: it’s been used in so many laugh-free or anti-glamorous contexts: like inner city sink estates, bus stations, or local government offices.
Here, however, concrete is fun. It’s light and human-scaled. It’s got some of the ‘machine ethic’ of modernism, but the straight lines are relieved by gentle curves. It’s simple – but it doesn’t feel bare or ungenerous. Like Marine Court, it borrows something of its style from ships. But the joke doesn’t feel laboured.
These moderne pavilions – offering protection from sudden downpours or nasty breezes – are perfectly at home at the English seaside. In their modest way they soften concrete and even, as marycigarettes suggests, feminise it.