Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Hastings: scaffold and grim churches Someone once described Brighton as the kind of town that is helping the police with their enquiries. The same or truer might be said of Hastings, a little further along the coast. I’ve been staying a few days in St Leonard’s, a whispering-close co-conspirator of Hastings which behaves very much as Hove does to Brighton – with a slight sense of musty superiority that is cracked and peeling when you get close up. Hastings has that delightful blend of the seedy discreditable and miss-handled style (clichéd as ‘faded elegance’) that rewards the curious. The wobbly terrain helps to spring surprises around corners and over crests. There are splendid, wretched old shop fronts and facades and front doors crying out for restoration, and a colourful sense of artistic optimism in stalls and studios between the charity shops and mini-marts. But what has struck me most on this visit has been the most dominant feature of the built environment – the numerous dismal and ugly churches – and the rash of scaffolding. Scaffolding seems to be the main industry in Hastings. As I look out the window from this flat I can see the confused geometry of standards, ledgers, ladders and crossbraces imprisoning seven separate properties, and two more from the back. So many buildings here are four, five, six storeys high, and the coastal weather scours them relentlessly. But I’ve never noticed so much scaffolding before nor had so much cause to wonder about its effect. How does it feel to live in a neighbourhood with such a sense of ongoing maintenance? In some places the frameworks seem to have settled in for the long term, with rust gripping the clips and guano accumulating on the boards. Is it more realistic to live like that, with a lasting symbolism of the ephemeral against your windows? Is there an architecture of permanent upkeep that I have been missing? The churches are far more depressing. The range of architecturally inexcusable lumpy hulks across the town is remarkable. It must present a problem for the planners to develop any kind of vision, because for each church, tabernacle, or chapel, I suppose there will be a handful of defendants determined fiercely to protect their spiritual home for eternity and somehow keep it open, perhaps claiming a social role which the architects had forsaken. But the cumulative effect is to sour the conversation that the town is trying to have.

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