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June 08 2012

There's a strange beauty to the Hoo peninsula. Is this any place for an airport? | Ian Jack

Along with birds and their habitat, the hidden traces of Hoo peninsula's previous eras of industry will be buried by railways and runways

I'm not sure I fully understand the term "psychogeography". To me, it means the exploration of an unlikely place or a hidden aspect of a place, and whenever I hear it I think of Sunday walks in my childhood, when we would follow an overgrown and neglected path and sometimes scrape away the turf to discover a square stone with bolt holes drilled through it. As beetles hurried this way and that across its surface, my older brother would explain that the stone had once held an iron rail and that the path had once been a wagon-way, built in the 18th century to take coal from the Fife pits to a harbour on the Forth.As nobody else seemed to know or care about these facts, I felt I was sharing a historical secret. There were several of them close by: dark, deep ponds that had once been quarries; a ruined slipway built to take seaplanes; steel rings that had tethered barrage balloons; an abandoned railway tunnel where bats flew. Like a great many people in what was at that time an industrial country, I grew up in a landscape that was interestingly pockmarked with successive eras of exploitation, and all of it so commonplace that beyond a mention of its origins, Watt's engine or Crompton's spinning mule, it never found a place in the history books.

Almost all of that Fife landscape has now been buried without ceremony by motorways and housing estates, but equivalents can be found elsewhere, none of them grander and stranger than that part of Kent known as the Hoo peninsula, which lies between the Medway and the Thames and which, if Norman Foster and Boris Johnson have their way, could become the most vital stretch of land in Britain. As the location of Foster's proposed Thames Hub, the Hoo peninsula will be paved with new railways and docks and the four-runway airport with which Johnson wants to replace overcrowded Heathrow. A new Thames barrier will generate electricity from the currents and tide. Passengers who land there will take ongoing flights and containers ongoing trains.

The scheme is so ambitious – Foster says it requires us "to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th-century forebears" – that estimating the cost beyond dozens of billions is pointless. Nevertheless, David Cameron has included it among the options to be considered when the government decides how the UK can continue to provide a hub airport for Europe: pledges to the voters of west London having ruled out Heathrow's expansion.

If Hoo were chosen, which isn't unlikely, the question then becomes: what would be destroyed to make way for it? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has, as usual, the quickest and simplest answer – the wetland habitats of visiting species – but beyond that the losses are less definable, and not so easy to raise a fuss over. Since Dickens's day, the creeks and marshes of Hoo have had a bleak form of celebrity as the spot where Pip first met Magwitch, and where prison hulks (Magwitch had just escaped from one of them) could be occasionally glimpsed through the mist on the Medway. In fact, the countryside is prettier and hillier than you expect. On a hot day last week, workers from Poland and Bulgaria were spreading straw across fields of strawberries while the knapped flint of Hoo's several 13th-century churches shone in the sun. There is also a 14th-century castle owned by Jools Holland and a workaday marina, about as far from Cowes in its social atmosphere as it's possible to get.

The main impression is of tremendous utility. Power lines sag west towards London to take electricity from the power stations at Kingsnorth and Grain, whose chimneys stand solid against the sky. A diesel rumbles along a single-track freight line with a train of containers from the dock near the peninsula's tip. And beside this present activity lies the evidence of older industries come and gone. A good guide will point out the hollows in the tidal reaches that were dug out in the 19th century when Medway mud was loaded into sailing barges by labourers called "muddies", taken to kilns and mixed with chalk to provide the London building boom with cement. What he needn't point out are the barges, which rot as nicely shaped timbers where the highest tide has left them and are in their way picturesque.

This is also a place of blighted ambition. The railway, for instance, was built for a glamorous purpose it only briefly fulfilled. Trains would take cross-Channel passengers to a pier with a hotel attached called Port Victoria, where they could catch steamers to Belgium and cut a few minutes from journey times offered by rival companies. But only Victoria, the monarch, found much use for it and long before the second world war the Hoo line had become a little-used byway. It last saw a passenger 50 years ago. Port Victoria has been buried under oil pipelines and mud.

Then on Hoo's northerly coast, there is Allhallows-on-Sea, the Ozymandias of seaside resorts. Developed by the Southern Railway, which built a branch to it in the 1930s, Allhallows was intended to have 5,000 houses, several hotels, a zoo and Britain's largest swimming pool with a wave-making machine. Then the war intervened. Postwar Londoners failed to return as holidaymakers and the railway closed. Today a big, echoing 1930s pub, the British Pilot, stands at the end of a cul-de-sac, beyond which is a park of holiday chalets and a sea wall with views across the estuary to Southend. Retired couples spend their summers there and winters in Goa or Cyprus, dividing the money released by the sale of their old homes between a chalet in Allhallows and a flat in the sun. "We don't do cold," says a tanned woman in her 60s, talking of these annual switches; while another wonders what will happen if her husband dies before her and she, a non-driver, is left alone in this inaccessible place.

Would it matter to the world beyond, other than to birds and ornithologists too, if Hoo became a giant airport and dock, clustered with warehouses, freight yards and car parks? It looks no more than a fitting next step for a peninsula that has for centuries been so ruthlessly used. Really, unless you live there, would you care?

And yet something important will go: wreckage, the traces of a previous era that have no official curator and are therefore delightful to find. High up one of Hoo's creeks sits a motorised barge, built in 1915 and long defunct, but still cared for by her last skipper, Cliff Pace, who turns the pages of his old logbook smiling at what he and his barge once achieved. "We took 3,237 bags of prunes from Albert Dock to Whitstable … 5,385 cartons of corned beef from the Victoria Dock to Stroud … 163 bundles of pick-axe handles from West India Dock to Otterham Quay." Even in the 1970s, the estuary was busy with lighters and lightermen – lovely times, says Mr Pace, but all gone. I look at his entries in the logbook and feel, just for a second, the same sensation of discovery that came when a carpet of moss was peeled from a square stone, the beetles scattered and my brother said, "Look…"


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October 01 2010

High design, low price: UK holiday homes

Alain de Botton's set of cutting-edge, affordable holiday homes is bringing modernism to the masses

The experience of spending a night in an architect-designed space is limited usually to those lucky enough to own one, or to afford a top-end boutique hotel. The philosopher Alain de Botton and a group of top architects are hoping to change this with his latest project, a series of contemporary and, he says, affordable holiday homes in the UK, designed by renowned architects. The aim is to persuade the less elevated among us to spend the weekend and return home more enthusiastic about modernism.

"We want people to discover what it's like to live, eat and sleep in an architect-designed house," says de Botton, who got the idea while writing The Architecture of Happiness. "Most modern buildings are in private hands, or tend to be places one passes through – airports, offices." I don't know; I've slept in a few airports in my time.

The not-for-profit enterprise, called Living Architecture, is a self-styled "educational body". As such, it is hoping that its prices will attract ordinary, non design-savvy people to its high-design houses. On a mid-week night during low season (November or February, say) you can stay for £20 a night per person, but prices rise to £65 a night per person for peak periods. Both costs are on the proviso you can fill every one of eight beds, so not suited to a weekend getaway for a couple.

First I head to Suffolk to see the Balancing Barn, which will be the first house to open, at the end of this month. It's extraordinary. From the front it looks like a small bungalow, but from the side, you can see it's a long silver barn – covered in reflective steel tiles – that hangs dramatically off the edge of a slope like the bus in The Italian Job. It even sways a little if you jump up and down in the living room. Mark Robinson, the director of Living Architecture, gives us a demonstration. "It used to be even livelier!"

The setting is exceptionally peaceful. The house, designed by Dutch firm MVRDV, is a few miles inland from Walberswick. It is surrounded by pine trees and wild plum trees. A disguised trap door fit for a Bond villain opens on to a cobbled terrace directly underneath the cantilevered living room. A swing hangs off the end.

Inside it's clad in timber. An expensive-looking open-plan kitchen – "it's actually only Miele", says Mark (they're keen not to be branded too high-end) – has floor-to-ceiling windows and designer crockery. It leads on to a long, light-filled hallway with wooden joists that slice diagonally across the windows. All four double bedrooms sit in a row off the hall. They are filled with tricksy digital art that references Constable and Gainsborough, bespoke beds, bespoke carpets and more geometric woodwork. All have en suite showers, and two have baths by the foot of the bed.

But it's the large living space that opens out at the end of corridor – the bit that hangs off the edge – that provides the wow-factor I'd been waiting for. A huge floor-to-ceiling picture window overlooks woods, meadows and a pond. And taking up most of the floor, like a large rug, is a glass window with a big drop below.

The room is spare. A TV is hidden away, shelves are empty except for one groaning with de Botton's entire works. It reminds me of a lobby of an advertising agency.

"We want people to take away ideas when they come and stay," says Mark. But I wonder whether spending a week here would instil in me a love of modern architecture. For all its showmanship, the Balancing Barn is a cold space, and a little isolated. Once inside and enjoying your break, it would be easy to forget its extrenal appearance.

How will they ensure that a wide range of people stay in their houses? In short, they're not sure. "There is a risk that only the demographic already interested in modern architecture will be drawn to them," Mark says. "But I think the interest is there. We're not trying to shock people – we've received lots of encouraging comments from locals and passers-by."

A few miles away on the coast is the Dune House, an altogether more inviting prospect. The location is sublime. It sits on a shingle beach a five-minute stroll from Thorpeness, with views of empty dunes, the beach, the North Sea and a vast sky.

The ground floor walls are almost entirely made of glass, the dunes rising up to the window ledges on the sides, giving the impression you are nestled within them. The first floor is clad in black timber, and the roof has four asymmetrical peaks clad in a rust-coloured steel. But it doesn't look out of place: the pointy roof and the steel are designed to mimic the terracotta tiles and gables on neighbouring roofs.

Inside, like the Balancing Barn, it's minimalist, but here it feels cosy and simple, softer somehow. Mark shows us round, saying architecty things such as "cupboards would have destroyed the space". Personally, I quite like cupboards. But instead, the four upstairs bedrooms each contain just a double bed, a freestanding bath located at just the right height for sea-gazing, and lots of pegs on the timber-lined walls to hang stuff. Downstairs, it's largely open plan, with a dining table, and a sofa huddled round a dramatic sunken pit. You can walk outside straight on to the beach.

The house, which opens in December, is designed by Norwegian architects Jarmund/Vigsnaes, apparently known for their "creative responses to the highly seasonal Nordic landscape". I think this means their houses are good in cold weather, and the Dune House is furnished with under-floor heating and a cosy log-burning stove to stave off those chilly easterly winds. It's a house to hunker down in, to get out the Scrabble and whisky, light the stove and settle in for the night with a gale blowing outside.

A few days later, I'm off to Kent. The Shingle House is a modern take on a wooden fisherman's cottage on other-worldly Dungeness beach in Kent, and opens next month. Actual fishermen live next door, fourth generation. It's practically my dream house: simple lime-washed timber walls, vintage furniture, four cosy bedrooms that sleep eight, sunken bath, wood-burning stove and a snug mezzanine with a huge window that overlooks the eerie landscape out to sea and, on a clear day, France.

The house is designed by young and hip NORD Architecture in Glasgow. It is the least architecturally demanding of the three, yet I took more delight in its clever details. The internal courtyard with slatted screens that pivot so you can angle them against the ever-present wind; and the fact that each room is designed around the time of day it catches the sun.

The existing cottage, complete with smoke house, was demolished. The Shingle House has been built on the same footprint to keep the planners happy, who wanted to retain the appearance of three separate buildings.

It's understandable: there are no holiday homes on Dungeness to speak of, and residents are fiercely protective of their beautiful, hostile landscape. It's a desolate expanse, dotted with boats and huts and a couple of lighthouses, overlooked by Dungeness power station. Tourists come to stare at Derek Jarman's garden, a stone's throw away.

Two more holiday homes open next year: the first, a medieval hall-type structure with a vast timber roof in Cockthorpe, Norfolk, designed by Michael and Patty Hopkins; the second, a monastic retreat in concrete near Salcombe, south Devon, by Peter Zumthor. After that, they plan to open one a year.

Guests staying in these extraordinary new houses may well be designers, architects and creative types from London. Or Living Architecture may succeed in its laudable aim of finding a wider audience. But either way, they are a welcome addition to the UK holiday home scene.

• Living Architecture (living-architecture.co.uk). Prices for a four-night mid-week break start from £725 (the Balancing Barn), £625 (the Shingle House) and £760 (the Dune House)


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June 18 2010

Whitstable Biennale: pearl among the art-world oysters

It may not have Venice quaking just yet, but this two-week festival on the Kent coast is shoring up a rich tableau of new art

Like most coastal towns in Britain, there is a faint waft of deep-fried fish that dances on your nostrils as you walk around it. You can also buy a boogie board or a beaded necklace within 15 minutes walk of the train station. But while Whitstable may previously have been most famous for its oysters, it now boasts one of the key events in the international art calendar too.

Now in its fifth year, the Whitstable Biennale has, according to a-n magazine, "become one of the superior offerings of the increasingly crowded biennale calendar". For two weeks, this usually quiet town bustles with art lovers, buyers and critics from across the world. Its burgeoning reputation is in no small part down to the curatorial talent of its director, Sue Jones.

Jones made her name at east London's renowned Chisenhale Gallery, where she was responsible for giving artists such as Sam Taylor-Wood, Wolfgang Tillmans, Turner prize-winner Gillian Wearing and Bob and Roberta Smith their first major shows. She sees the biennale as an opportunity to continue the process of giving emerging artists a platform. "I wanted to recreate the energy and risk-taking I employed at Chisenhale in the 90s," she says. "Looking back, just about every major artist showed there during that period. We gave many people their first big break, an opportunity to create a major work. Now I feel I'm doing the same thing – only instead of individual shows, I'm able to put on the equivalent of a two-year programme in two weeks."

Jones believes the biennale has the potential to change the local area. "Whitstable has had a firmly established art community for a long time but now, just as Tate St Ives brought the St Ives community to the attention of the world, the Whitstable Biennale is helping to put Whitstable on the map."

The town's arrival on the art scene also means an injection of funds into its coffers. "Visit Kent calculated that the 2008 biennale brought in almost £700,000 to Whitstable over the two-week period," says Jones. "And we are anticipating an audience of 25,000 this year. Success brings confidence. The town is proud of the biennale."

Artists who show at Whitstable often go on to international success. Film-maker Clio Barnard, who created Plotlands for the 2008 biennale (involving the screening of a film on the marshes for the benefit of people on passing trains) recently won best new documentary film-maker at the 2010 Tribeca Film festival in New York. Simon Faithfull, who showed Lost (a run of books detailing all the things he has ever lost, ranging from keys and computers and jumpers, to his virginity) has gone on to show all over the world, including a critically acclaimed exhibition at the BFI.

So what can we look forward to this year? "Katie Paterson's Every Night About This Time is a real highlight," says Jones. "She has made 13 works that subtly thread through the biennale programme, appearing and disappearing, and stretching out from Whitstable to the whole world – and beyond this planet," says Jones. "A single black firework is set off under dark skies; a streetlight in Whitstable flickers in time with lightning storms happening across the world; an atom-size grain of sand is buried deep within the Sahara desert; a record player spins in synchronisation with the earth." Elsewhere, Phil Coy's Façade, a major new filmwork from the young British artist, takes audiences through contemporary glass architecture, contrasting architectural walkthroughs of nonexistent buildings with tracking shots over the facades of existing buildings. The film will be shown in a specially constructed set in Whitstable's working harbour.

While the Whitstable Biennale continues to grow, rumours are rife that the Tate will open a space in the town. "There have been a number of rumours in the Whitstable sea air," says Jones. "I'm not at liberty to comment, except to say that the Tate are very clever at opening spaces where solid art foundations already exist. Whitstable would qualify in those terms; and it's nearer to London than Tate St Ives …"


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