by Jenny Steele 


The Tropical Garden, vinyl print on rotunda window of The Midland Morecambe, 2017



"The sea air and bathing together were nearly infallible … Nobody could catch a cold by the sea, nobody wanted appetite, nobody wanted spirits, nobody wanted strength. They were healing, relaxing, fortifying and bracing, seemingly just as was wanted, sometimes one, sometimes the other. If the sea breeze failed, the sea bath was the certain corrective; and where bathing disagreed, the sea breeze alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure." [i]



In her last unfinished novel Sandition, Jane Austen writes evangelically, and perhaps sarcastically - about the healing properties of spending time at the seaside resort of Sandition.

The British have been holidaying for centuries in seaside towns, and we now recognise they can't offer a medicinal cure-all. Undoubtedly, however, they do provide a wide range of restorative benefits for those that promenade alongside the main attraction - the sea.

Recent research has identified that positive psychological experiences of calmness and enjoyment are more likely to happen in 'blue space' or the seaside, rather than in urban or rural environments (Ashbullby, White, Pahl and Depledge, 2013[ii]).

Dr David Jarratt, a researcher in 'Seasideness', explores the notion that spending time at the seaside is restorative and good for our wellbeing, also offering a potentially spiritual experience.[iii] Jarratt conducts his research via interviews with holidaymakers and day-trippers who describe the sea as possessing qualities of timelessness, vastness and the sublime - a space to put our worries into perspective, to relax and forget it all.



The coastline is a space I am drawn to in my work - a space for release, recuperation and enjoyment. For the past five years, my work has explored and responded to seaside architecture, in particular, modernist seafront architecture built during the 1930s leisure boom in North England and Scotland. I am interested the design's resilience and utopian formalism and idealism.

Sitting on the edge of the water, this optimistic architecture was constructed for people to enjoy the seaside in glamorous settings. Following the trauma of World War I, there was a social emphasis towards health and wellbeing. The first-ever national allocation of a one week holiday, and efficient train travel allowed millions to travel to the seaside.

Private companies created entertainment architecture, such as The Midland Hotel, Morecambe and Blackpool Pleasure Beach. In Scotland, pavilions, such as Rothesay Pavilion, Bute, were commissioned to provide spaces for tourist entertainment and annual recreational space for locals. Open air lidos were built by local governments for heliotherapy and exercise.



This feeling of excitement, movement and positivity was mirrored in the design of 1930s coastal architecture. Described as Seaside Moderne, it stood out significantly from Edwardian and Victorian architecture on the beach. The architecture symbolised resilience - whatever trauma had happened, they could overcome it and rebuild.

Influenced by the International Modern Style - Seaside Moderne was typified by sweeping curves, wide open spaces and horizontal lines. Also called 'Nautical Moderne', it often referenced the form and luxury of ocean liners but was temporarily halted on dry land. Interiors were opulent, with light filled stairways, exotic wood panelling, terrazzo flooring and modern textiles. This design re-emphasised the social framework of the seaside location, further creating a stage set to permit relaxation and enjoyment.

The ocean liners which the architecture imitated were also the carriers by which ideas were transported to European and colonial territories. In 1925, US President Calvin Coolidge travelled to the Paris Industrial Arts Exposition. Impressed by early modernism, Coolidge decided they wanted to adopt this forward-looking design in New York, further spreading south to Miami.



In May 2017, I visited Miami Beach, Florida, where the majority of Miami Beach was rebuilt in Seaside Moderne style, following a hurricane in 1926. A relatively new resort, Miami was a swampland until 1885, when the government encouraged people to live and holiday there. A grid system was constructed by entrepreneurs and coconut trees were planted to create a tropical feel.

Ambitious hotel construction began in the early 1930s and the tropical environment was further created by making man-made sand dunes, and bringing palm trees, green parrots and flamingos - none of which were indigenous to the area.

The large area of hundreds of hotels is influenced by ship design, with features of masts, small windows and portholes. Built quickly and cheaply, they featured horizontal racing stripes, to suggest movement towards a better, more progressive future. Accommodation was made available to the working classes to upper classes, as nationally everyone was given a paid holiday.

Each hotel has a distinguishing colour scheme or façade relief, often taking influence from other cultures, such as Mayan, Egypt and China. A common symbol is the fountain, frozen in time at the very point of spouting upwards. This signified social attitudes - everything was new and exciting, and about to begin.



However, this optimism was quickly halted by World War II. This new pleasure architecture was used for the war effort in Britain. New Brighton Palace, Wirral, became an ammunition factory, The Midland Hotel provided a hospital and Stonehaven Open Air Swimming Pool was used for the army. Across the Atlantic, Miami Beach became a training area for pilots.

After the trauma of World War II, building did not resume in Miami Beach until the late 1940s-1950s, but the fashion became larger, resort hotels, spreading upwards to North Beach.

The British seaside never again saw the time of unprecedented growth and opulence that it experienced in the 1930s. Seaside holiday making continued until the 1970s, at which point travel abroad became more economical, and favoured over the British seaside. However, there still remained minimal tourism through a personal connection to the seaside, which kept people returning.

Each resort I have visited, both in the UK and Miami Beach, has their own narrative of decline. Miami Beach fell into serious decline in the 1970s-80s when the area became synonymous with gang violence, and the majority of the 1930s architecture was threatened with demolition.



In the late 1970s, a movement was led in Miami by activist Barbara Baer Capitman, together with a group of supporters, now the Miami Design Preservation League. They rallied internationally to have Miami Beach recorded on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Attention was drawn to the area by repainting every building is a new tropical palette of colours, created by artist Leonard Horowitz, which was not based on any original colouring. Their preservation approach varies slightly to British heritage attitudes - internal reconfiguration and extensions are more flexible to be able to provide a contemporary hotel offer. Further buoyed by the advertisement of this tropical beach in 'Miami Vice' and 'Scarface' in the 1980s - it is now a thriving seaside resort.

Since our most recent recession in 2008, there has been a modest resurgence in holidaying at the British seaside. There are several examples of 1930s architecture being renovated to lead the redevelopment of a resort, such as The Midland Hotel, Morecambe, The De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill and Saltdean Lido, Brighton. In 2019, the Rothesay Pavilion, Bute, will also reopen as an art centre after a renovation period, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It is the very attitude of utopian idealism at the height of the 1930s exuberance that I seek to interpret and restore through my work in new forms. This Building for Hope exhibition in October 2017 at The Midland, Morecambe will feature sculptural and print-based work within the interior, exterior and promenade surrounding the hotel that will bring together research from both British and Miami Seaside Moderne architecture.

Situated within and around The Midland architecture itself, the artwork will focus on reviving elements of the architect's original intentions, rather than emphasising decline or decay - embodying and restoring what was once lost in new, temporary interventions to the space.



[i] p9. Austen, Jane (2007) Sandition and The Watson's: Austen's Unfinished Novels. USA: Dover Publications

[ii] Ashbullby, K., White, M., Pahl, S. and Depledge, M. (2012). The Psychological Benefits of Visiting Natural Environments: Different Effects of the Coast, Countryside and Urban Open Space on Positive Effect. Academic poster.

[iii] Jarratt, David (2015) Seasideness: Sense of Place at a Seaside Resort. In: Landscapes of Leisure: Space, Place and Identities. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, pp. 147-163.