Redeveloping redevelopment

Last weekend I was lucky enough to have an excuse to stay at Urban Splash’s (responsible for the Rotunda update) recently redeveloped and re-opened Midland Hotel in Morecambe. The Art Deco seaside retreat got a huge amount of publicity on reopening, Guardian features, Culture Show specials, asking the question of whether the redevelopment of the hotel could spark a renaissance for the whole town.

It is stunningly beautiful at first glance, although the view is spoilt by the car park packed with monster trucks that I’m sure Mrs Simpson (of Edward and… fame) didn’t have to put up with. The rooms are also fantastic, and a great deal of time and effort has been spent reflecting the style of the building through nice bits of design. A particular favourite touch of mine was the beer mats in the style of the Marion Dorn rugs that once graced the reception. The spiral staircase just begs you to take photos of it, which I did:
But there’s something a bit wrong. There are already stains and signs of rust on the roof of the rear terrace, there is the odd bit where the floor titles have worked loosed are in need of repair. Some of the doors are marked with signs obviously made with Microsoft Publisher, blu-tac’d on, saying “staff only”. The way to the toilet from the function suite is past a pile of mops and buckets, primed for use with already dirty water in them. Not huge problems, and ones I’d have probably not even noticed if it were not for the 1920s decadent vibe I was trying to buy into.

As far as I can guess there’s no way that buildings can be maintained in the same way now as they were in the 1920s. Labour is much more expensive. It’s right that we can no longer subjugate people into working so hard that they present a sheen of constant shininess to the paying guest. I don’t want some poor worker constantly on call to clean roofs or touch up tilings, I don’t want someone to have to stand in front of doors that we’re not meant to use “helpfully” pointing us in the right direction. But this means that it’s not possible to create a sheen over the real workings of a building, so there has to be another way to do it.

The Rotunda Bar in the hotel, but open to the public, (named for our Rotunda, I don’t know) is another sumptuous, but somehow wrong setting. I expected, no wanted, a Noel Coward-esque piano artiste (he stayed in the hotel for a time, and is one of my heroes) serenading residents with bon-mots and frightfully clever lyrics while we sipped our iced tea. What we got was pumped in chart music, slightly too loud, while people dressed for Morecambe’s sea-front (waterproofs and fleeces, it is Lancashire) drank pints of beer. It’s my problem, I’m a snob I know—but it jars with the idea of the redevelopment.

The second problem with trying to cling to this past is this: exclusivity can only be maintained by price, not by societal “rules”. Attempt to bar entry (to the bar) by lack of tie, or bearing, with result in people demanding their “rights” or (that dreadful word) “respect” –àand since they’re coming in anyway, why not switch the entertainment to lowest-common denominator (and cheapest) stuff anyway.

So, I’m thinking, you can’t really redevelop for the past as it was and an attempt to sit betwixt two eras is doomed to disappoint (well, disappoint me anyway). Again in Morecambe the palatial Winter Gardens are falling down, and in need of £10M of refurbishment (according to a guy from the society trying to save it I chatted to). If they get the money, the only real plan is to make it look how it did in the last century, when Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies and Max Bygraves trod the boards. I can’t see it working, it’s gorgeous now in it’s faded and falling down state – to put back the gilt will be to chocolate box it (they, for some reason, won’t allow photos to be taken, but imagine the theatre at the start of Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’). If it could be made safe without cleaning it up too much it would look wonderful, but where’s the maverick willing to do that?

So redevelopment for the present or future? It seems that the current trends are for soulessness, identikit bars attempting to price out the lower classes—which is what everybody is assuming that is planned for “Baskerville Wharf” in the stead of the Flapper.
Over a thousand members of the ‘Save the Flapper’ Facebook group, plus supportive articles in the Mail, seem to suggest that a fair number of people think that there must be another way.

If an area is underused, why not make it more accessible with bus routes, friendlier – and safer seeming – with better lighting, why not build some flexible shop units with low rents for creative types, how about housing for families rather than young professionals? How about redevelopment that doesn’t start with ideas of exclusivity, or a scorched earth policy of destroying everything that was there before?

Oh, and if you can find room for a little bar with a witty 20s pianist I’ll be even more happy.

Originally published by The Birmingham Post.

Author: Jon Bounds

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed. His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it's out now. Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It's Not Shit.

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