What price regeneration? I was mulling on this topic over the weekend, while walking the streets of Folkestone visiting artworks forming its Triennial festival.
Like many seaside towns, the good people of Folkestone are hoping that culture-led regeneration will deliver future prosperity. Unlike many other resorts, Folkestone has the benefit of a wealthy benefactor (former Saga head honcho Roger De Haan) plus vastly improved travel links thanks to the arrival of High Speed One rail link that zooms passengers direct to London’s St Pancras International.
Holding a huge art event every three years also provides a decent punctuation in time to assess progress in ongoing regeneration efforts. And it’s fair to say that major advances have been made in the last 36 months: The swish new Rocksalt restaurant on the harbour by Guy Holloway Architects; More refurbished artist studio spaces and retail units along the Old High Street and Tontine Street; The Quarterhouse venue also on Tontine Street, by Alison Brooks Architects. Yet many of the units remain empty and the turnover of tenants seems high.
There is a sense of still much waiting to happen here. Foster is no longer the masterplanner of redevelopment of the sea front, on the site of the former Rotunda Fun Fair. Instead, Farrells is now in charge of creating a new urban experience here. You can read all about it at folkestoneseafront.com. All well and good, but I bet it won’t be as exciting as the amazing Switchback railway that entertained visitors during Victorian times.
My fear is that regeneration of places like Folkestone wipes away their personalities. They become sanitised versions of their former selves. The vast tract of empty land where fairground rides used to stand is bleak but atmospheric. The bargain-basement Grand Burstin Hotel looms nearby, thanks to its shape a very visible reminder of (recent) times when Folkestone was a major ferry port.
The closure of cross-Channel services must have hit Folkestone hard, and the derelict railway viaduct that slices across the harbour and adjacent station (currently being reclaimed by nature) plus brutalist pilot’s tower together provide a fitting and powerful monument to former prosperity. There’s talk about transforming this part of the site into a heritage attraction, by the Remembrance Line Association, to commemorate the harbour’s role as the departure point for so many troops in the Second World War.
Change is bound to happen, and the character of Folkestone will change, for better and for worse. My advice is get down there as soon as you can, particularly while the Triennial is still taking place.
The Triennial itself somewhat fails to live up to the buzz created by its first edition, back in 2008. There are some amazing pieces, but overall too much focus on video installations (of which some are more like straightforward documentaries than what I would consider to be artworks) and the tone is downbeat. An emphasis on works about overseas places, in countries as diverse as Israel, Algeria and Eqypt, is all very interesting but I would have enjoyed more work rooted in the locality, and of a more interactive nature. But that’s just my opinion – take a trip and judge for yourself.