Festival House, Blackpool, by dRMM
De Rijke Marsh Morgan Architects’ seafront wedding chapel is the most successful of Blackpool’s efforts to reinvent itself architecturally
Sixty-four per cent of British males lost their virginity in Blackpool,” says Alex de Rijke, with a matter-of-fact Dutch directness. “We thought that was a nice starting point for our project.” Whether true or not, it is the kind of absurd statistic that has built the reputation of this plucky seaside town, home to innumerable firsts, biggests and mosts. Proud inventor of the helter skelter, as well as the world’s largest chip butty, Blackpool still reputedly attracts more visitors than the pyramids at Giza, the Statue of Liberty and the Taj Mahal combined. The big party-political conferences may be gone, but the town still plays host to the national pigeon fanciers’ show and the final of Strictly Come Dancing, so all is not lost.
Drawn by the lure of a bawdy night out, a good proportion of Blackpool’s 13 million annual visitors is made up of stag and hen parties, which can regularly be seen rampaging up and down the promenade like rampant flocks of migratory fowl. They bring welcome cash, but not-so-welcome antics — a tide of vulgarity that finally led the council to take the exotic measure of banning inflatable genitalia on the seafront in 2007.
This was also the year that the town lost out on its bid to host a super-casino — a stunted Burj Al Arab designed by Gensler — which promised £450 million of investment and 3,400 jobs. But gambling would have been a dubious salve for a place that suffers from the highest rate of antidepressant drug use in the UK; it went to Manchester instead and was promptly abandoned.
Blackpool’s ambition of being Vegas-on-sea, however, was not so easily discarded. The dream is now some way to being realised in the form of Festival House, a glitzy new wedding chapel by de Rijke Marsh Morgan Architects — a jaunty golden box perched on the seafront that gleams today in the low winter sun.
“We figured all the stags and hens would need somewhere to get married,” says de Rijke, breaking into a broad grin that reveals two shiny golden teeth, like little fragments of his facade. “It’s in Blackpool, so you’ve got to have a bit of bling.” We have yet to step inside, but already he feels like the right architect for the job.
This £2.85 million building, which also houses a tourist information office and seaside café, is the latest part of a £1.4 billion masterplan, launched in 2003, in an attempt to shed the resort’s seedy reputation and transform it into a year-round, fun-for-all-the-family destination. Since then, ReBlackpool, the regeneration partnership charged with this task, has presided over a range of measures that have met with varying degrees of success.
The glass rotunda of the 19th century Winter Gardens has been restored to its former glory and the waterfront tramway has been upgraded, both of which are welcome improvements. Elsewhere, all hopes seem to have been vested in the miracle-making powers of bad public art, that bogus tool of noughties urban renewal.
Optimistically titled “Brilliance”, a gauntlet of 10m-high steel arches marches down Birley Street, by night blaring a garish son et lumière extravaganza of rotary strobes and Pet Shop Boys. In nearby St John’s Square, another wave of steel bursts from the ground, rippling up to a peak from which an illuminated resin figure dangles in terror. The southern end of the promenade, meanwhile, has been treated to another gigantic wave — get the theme? — this time in the form of an LED-studded concrete wall. And let’s not forget the world’s largest disco ball — perched on a stick at the end of the prom like a bloated lollipop. It is a depressing slew of gaudy baubles, aptly described by a local resident as “window dressing schemes that gloss over the deep cracks”.
The most ambitious, and hopefully more useful, of these works to date is now nearing completion: the £200 million Seafront Experience, a comprehensive rebuilding of the shoreline, with new coastal defences and six themed headlands, planned by LDA Design. Won in competition in 2007, its proposal conceived a series of “inland piers”, intended to stitch the seaside fun into the fabric of the town by extending the axes of existing streets on to the headland, each terminating in a pavilion — designed by dRMM.
As ever, the plan proved a little ambitious for the funds available, so only the first third of the landscaping, and one pavilion, Festival House, has been built. Stretching half a mile between North Pier down to Central Pier, linking these two ailing fingers of fun, LDA has built a surreal fantasy landscape of rolling dune-like slopes, punctuated by 35m-tall swaying black stalks and curvaceous concrete pebbles — as well as a couple of supersized 20-person see-saws. It is more considered and of a higher quality than the rest of the town’s tat, but I can’t help having some sympathy for two elderly gents I meet pottering down the prom: “They call this landscape? They’ve ripped up all the benches and left us with a concrete wasteland.”
In the middle of all this, laid out beneath the majestic Blackpool Tower, is the Comedy Carpet by artist Gordon Young, which leads down to a grand, oversized staircase to the beach. Its 2,000sq m of inlaid terrazzo letters spelling out famous slapstick catchphrases is an incredibly lavish piece of public realm, of a civic grandeur worthy of the Victorians. It somehow escapes tackiness in its sheer quality — achieved with a price tag of £4 million.
A little way to the north, placed as a bookend to this stretch of whimsy, stands the chapel. It is an odd concoction: “dRMM’s venture into form,” says de Rijke, with a little hesitance. A single-story plinth of beige blockwork extends to the south, parallel with the tram tracks, to house the (forthcoming, recession-dependent) café, with windows on all sides to allow tables to spill out on to a raised terrace. At the northern end this masonry plinth begins to flare out, transforming into a lighter skin of gold-coloured stainless steel shingles that wraps around the first and second floors of what reads as a little tower, cantilevered out in a narrow taper. The roof of the lower form is kinked halfway along its length, tilted up and out in two directions to oversail its base like a wonky, ill-fitting lid. The crank is “to help lift the building”, says de Rijke, to make it “lighter and more elegant, not just a dumb plane like Mendelsohn at Bexhill”.
Although it might be unwise to compare it to the De La Warr pavilion, his building has an amiably wayward bearing that, while maybe uncomfortable elsewhere, sits happily here against a backdrop of unruly pitches and ramshackle, garishly garbed sheds.
The entrance is sited at the base of the tower, at the hinge point of the two forms, where a generous sliding door welcomes you into the woody world of the information centre. Unexpectedly vast beams of cross-laminated timber shoot across the ceiling, allowing for the cantilever above, while a big picture window looks out to sea.
The engineered timber planes feel a little blank, like a giant sauna conceived by Duplo
A door leads through to the main staircase, a light-flooded processional affair, somewhat fettered by the chunky municipal detailing and lino flooring. But not to worry, the bride takes the elevator straight to the top of the building, while guests are led to an expansive first-floor waiting room — complete with a roof terrace and smaller registry office for the £40 weekday deal (the top room sets you back £400). It is a slightly peculiar entrance sequence, given that the wedding party has to pass gaggles of leaflet-browsing tourists on their way upstairs, but this will no doubt only add to the surreal nature of the whole occasion.
Upstairs, the principal ceremony room tapers in plan and rises in section to a tall picture window, perfectly angled to frame the Tower beyond in a decidedly phallic backdrop to the exchange of vows. Unlike a conventionally side-lit church, the walls are blind but for this aperture, powerfully funnelling views towards centre stage. An altar-like block of stacked cross-laminated timber stands at the focus — an apt metaphor for dRMM’s almost evangelical advocacy of this material.
“If the 19th century was the century of steel, and the 20th the century of concrete, then the 21st century is about engineered timber,” de Rijke has oft espoused on brochures for CLT manufacturers. He has perhaps done more than anyone to convince clients of this material’s worth, but here its great planes feel a little blank and its junctions a bit clumsy, like a giant sauna conceived by Duplo. “We’re going to experiment more with milling patterns and staining in the next project,” he concedes. Nonetheless, the canted timber walls give the building an appropriately nautical feel, exaggerated by the prow-like geometries and their balustraded decks.
A door to the side of the ceremony room leads to the main west-facing registry office, which enjoys a long panoramic window looking out over the Irish Sea — a momentously infinite horizon to ponder as you sign the big book. A mirror-lined wall of cupboards also makes this a useful waiting room for the bride.
Back outside, the building is already beginning to show signs that the abrasive coastal air is not particularly forgiving to architecture that relies on looking shiny and new. The glass balustrades are caked in salt, while the west-facing doors to the café are now shored-up with sandbags after January waves proved fiercer than expected. The pitted golden cladding, however, is still sparkly — until you look at the many cantilevered soffits, encrusted with deposits from run-off.
“We tested a sample of the cladding outside in the elements for six months and it was fine,” says de Rijke. “We just hadn’t anticipated the salty water being blown up on to the soffit.”
A material that will probably fare better is the robust blockwork, a product made by Lignacite from 33% recycled sand and chunks of glass (appropriately including shards of beer and wine bottles). Some of the blocks allegedly contain phosphorescent aggregate, variously laid in the shape of a heart, knife and fork, and an information “i” symbol, in a play on the Blackpool illuminations — although no one has yet detected their presence.
As we leave, a stretched black Hummer pulls up, signalling the arrival of the first wedding. Tiny bridesmaids spill out, while guests look on from the balcony deck above. The elevation is suddenly animated, coming alive as a finely tuned stage set, views framed and relationships clearly choreographed in a multi-tiered composition that adds to the excitement of the bride’s arrival.
David Hill, the superintendent registrar who postponed his retirement to preside over the building’s first ceremony, is over the moon. “It’s such a change to the drab 1980s block we were in before,” he tells me. “And the law is changing soon, so you will be able to get married 24/7, which is great for us and the illuminations — this will be the perfect venue for the late-night wedding.”
And so it will. For, despite some of its shortcomings in detail, the building has a jovial kiss-me-quick energy — what de Rijke describes as a “subtext of Spartan hedonism” — that makes it a welcome addition to this bold new seafront.
Architect DRMM, Client Blackpool Council, Lead consultant LDA Design, Main contractor Parkinson Building Contractors, Structural engineer Michael Hadi Associates, Cost consultant Gardiner & Theobald, Services engineer Michael Popper Associates