In the twenties and thirties there was a huge jump in the number of people able to take a holiday by the sea for a week or more. The unprecedented increase in the numbers of holiday makers had far reaching consequences for the appearance of the English coast. Firstly, the resorts had to be adapted and improved to cope with the increased numbers. Secondly, the inter-war years were the time in which local councillors began to assume the responsibility of running the seaside towns as a commercial enterprise.
In the Victorian and Edwardian eras it had been private enterprise that took the lead. In the inter-war years it was the local councillors who became directors of their towns. Ever increasing sums of rate payers' money seemed to be available to spend. Blackpool, not surprisingly, spent the most: £1,500,000 on a seven-mile promenade, £300,000 on indoor baths; £75,000 on an open air pool; and £250,000 on the entirely new Stanley Park. Brighton extended her promenade six miles to the new resort of Saltdean, added a new outdoor pool and revamped the aquarium. Bournemouth spent £250,000 on a new pavilion in 1929 and opened the new Pier Approach Baths in 1937. Hastings spent £100,000 on the White Rock Pavilion, £180,000 on a new promenade and underground car park and well over £150,000 on new swimming facilities. These figures might not seem huge by today's standards, but in those days you could have bought a brand new semi-detached house for as little as £500.
There was open competition between the resorts over the amounts spent. Guide books trumpeted "visit the new £100,000 baths". Statistics like the length of the new front were proudly boasted. New promenades and coastal defences in concrete were considered the most important part of any modernization programme.
Seaside towns have always been a world of their own, a chance to escape the realities of daily life for one or two weeks of the year. They are, or at least attempt to be, a veritable pleasure palace by the sea, offering their visitors dazzling temptations and entertainment. As such, their architecture has always leaned towards the fanciful and exaggerated. This has been the tradition ever since the Brighton Pavilion was built for the Prince Regent in 1820. Nash's design was oriental in flavour, with its famous "onion" domes. The interior was in Chinese style. The Pavilion was quite unlike any building of its era. Its influence on seaside architecture from that date onwards was profound. The style of the Pavilion found its way onto the Victorian and Edwardian pier in the Baroque flourishes in wrought iron, in the oriental onion domes of the kiosks, bandstands and pier pavilions.
With so much money to spend and local councils willing to spend it, many resorts were literally transformed in the 'twenties and 'thirties. At the beginning of the 'twenties, seaside architecture followed the traditions of the Victorian age. A proposal for improvement to aging baths at Hastings, even as late as 1926 still copied the exotic style of the Brighton Pavilion and the new pier pavilion and bandstand at Worthing, built in 1925-6 used the traditional seaside style. In most new building work in the 'twenties there was, however, a simpler feel. Although for the most part the design was along traditional lines. The popular architectural style of the day was the classical or neo Georgian and this was well represented at the seaside. The Winter Gardens at Weston-Super-Mare, opened in 1927, used this style making extensive use of pillars. The new Pavilion at Bournemouth, opened in 1929, used the Georgian style mainly in red brick, but with rather grand square looking pillars in Portland stone and concrete surrounding most of the building. Other styles were used. Hastings' White Rock Pavilion (1928) is in Spanish style. None of these buildings were in any way "modern".
By the 'thirties there was a dramatic shift in tastes. The purpose was still the same, to create a fantasy world where the ordinary and dull would be banished, but the shape of that world was to change beyond recognition. No longer was the oriental pleasure palace the inspiration, but the sophistication of the South of France and the ocean liner. The idea was to bring the style of the buildings of continental Europe to our shores, so that the middle and working classes could lap up the atmosphere without the expense and the perceived dubious morals associated with the "bright young things" of the smart set.
To see how much things changed over the inter-war period, take a look at the Casino in Blackpool. The original Casino at Blackpool's Pleasure Beach was built in 1913 and was replaced only twenty-six years later with a new design by architect Joseph Emberton. The original was built essentially just before our period began as there was very little seaside building during the First World War, its replacement is right at the end of our period. "Casino" is something of a misnomer, as gambling was not permitted and both buildings were really restaurants and cafés. The original building used all the styling tricks of the Victorian and Edwardian seaside architect. It has been compared by different authors to an Indian palace and to a wedding cake. It is a flamboyant, distinctly over the top, architectural indulgence in fantasy. A building designed for fun, rather than serious purpose.
The new Casino is quite the opposite in style. It has virtually no applied decoration. A simple, circular form is used for the main building with a wide expanse of glass. The building is topped with a circular tower. White is the predominant colour. It is the last word in 1930's chic. In spite of its much more functional appearance, the new Casino is just as much fun as its more fancy ancestor. This sense of fun is expressed in the tower with its concrete "corkscrew" echoing the corkscrew staircase inside the building and providing the entrance to the Pleasure Beach. Modern architecture and building techniques have been used to create a building that is new and exciting.
The architecture of what became known as the "modern movement", was based on the principle that "form follows function", that the outward appearance of the building should be determined solely by the intended use of its interior. This doctrine was publicized in Europe by amongst others the architect Le Corbusier and Head of the Bauhaus School of Art and Design, Walter Gropius. Both had designed modern buildings, even before the First World War. The majority of true modern buildings in the 'twenties and 'thirties had similar outward characteristics: flat roofs; the use of white concrete; strong geometrical shapes, particularly the cube; the use of cantilevered balconies; large expanses of glass and above all, an almost complete absence of any ornamentation.
Probably the finest example of a modern seaside building is the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea. The idea for the Pavilion came from the Mayor of Bexhill, the Ninth Earl De La Warr, a socialist peer. He convinced the town councillors that the entertainment facilities of Bexhill needed to be improved to prevent it from losing the business to other resorts and in 1933 a competition was announced to design a new pavilion in a simple and modern style.
The winning entry was a design by well known modern architects, Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, working in partnership. Mendelsohn was a German by birth, but had left his native land when Hitler came to power in 1933. With an established reputation as one of the country's leading modern architects, Chermayeff, who emigrated from Russia, was already a well known architect and designer who had produced some striking modern radio cabinet designs for Ekco.
The Pavilion, which was opened on 12 December 1935, fully utilised the latest techniques and building materials. A welded, steel framed structure, a German idea and one of the first in the UK, was employed supporting plate glass walls. The effect is stunning and the Pavilion is unlike any other seaside building, even today. The building is dominated by a wonderful round staircase, which has a beautifully light feeling to it when viewed from the outside. Inside, the staircase has a magnificent modernist lighting fitting running almost from top to bottom. Its balconies have a superb view of the beach and out to sea and inside the building is light and airy.
The facilities of the Pavilion were extensive, including a restaurant, auditorium, library and reading room. Most typically for the 'thirties, a flat roof was provided for sunbathing along with a sun balcony for soaking up the sun's rays when the weather was less clement.
Modernism also found a found a home at Brighton. In the mid 'thirties, the train service between London and Brighton was vastly improved. New electric trains ran to Brighton from London six times each hour. These new trains were not only fast, but clean and comfortable. This made commuting from a home in Brighton to work in the Metropolis an attractive proposition, particularly as rents at Brighton were considerably cheaper than London and of course, the Brighton air was much healthier. To house the most fashionable of these new commuters, Wells Coates designed Embassy Court. Strangely enough, Wells Coates' earlier work also included radio cabinet design for Ecko - the famous round radio. Wells Coates was a devotee of Le Corbusier and resolutely took the doctrine of form follows function to heart. The flats were built using true functionalist principles. The interior of the flats was planned first, using the idea of maximum convenience and minimum clutter, then the exterior was planned around it. The structure is monolithic concrete featuring wrap round curved balconies and "suntrap" windows. You can imagine the pleasure of relaxing on a warm Summer evening, after a hard day at the office, sitting out on the balcony, sipping a cocktail and looking out to sea. Embassy Court followed on from a similar block in Lawn Road in Hampstead, which numbered among its tenants leading modern architects and designers and popular crime fiction writer, Agatha Christie.
Some towns were altered completely in character in the 'thirties. Hastings and St Leonards was given a complete new promenade built in reinforced concrete. The new front was a "double decker" with a very functionalist lower walkway which was decorated with different coloured broken glass set into the concrete. An underground car park was built, which at the time removed the eyesore of cars parked along the front - it is still there today, but is, of course, no where near adequate to its original task. There are also some rather futuristic concrete shelters dotted along the front (left). Much of this was the work of Sidney Little, the Borough Engineer. He was nicknamed the "Concrete King" at the time for his liking of functionalist style and reinforced concrete.
Another seaside architectural development of the era and one which caused considerable alarm with commentators at the time and since, was the rapidly expanding number of seaside bungalows. These were often prefabricated, containing only two or three rooms. They were sold as second homes for couples and families to use as a permanent base for their holidays. Builders often stressed the investment potential and likely rental income as major selling points. A great deal of these bungalows were poorly designed and built with little regard to their surroundings. However, there are some exceptionally fine examples. One site of particular interest is to be found at Pevensey Bay in Sussex. A development was built there in the later 'thirties based on Swedish designs. There are two principle types, although the catalogue produced at the time listed numerous varieties. The most basic design - known locally as "oyster bungalows" have a large curved section at the front, forming the main room with windows all round and a French window style double front door. The cooking and sleeping quarters are situated behind this in a box like structure. The bungalows are also known as "sun trap" because of the amount of sunlight let in by their large front windows. The second type is a more boxy structure with a flat roof and typical 'thirties' style windows, with horizontal glazing bars. The original development was to have had shops and a cinema. Sadly, the War intervened and the cinema was never built, although development was continued after the War.
This section was adapted from a chapter in "Sun, Sea and Sand"
More on seaside architecture:
The Twentieth Century SocietyThe Twentieth Century Society is dedicated to the preservation of buildings from that century. Seaside buildings including lidos are part of their remit.
Twentieth Century Society
The seaside lidoRead more about the seaside lido in the 20s and 30s.
The seaside lido
The British seaside holiday