Coasting to success
Hastings has been embattled for too long.But Caroline Lwin is determined to give the town a new lease of life - with the help of a series of big-name architects
It's decision time for Caroline Lwin, who has the world's finest architects at her feet and at least £400 million of work to divide up.
Lwin, an architect who currently has the job of masterplan and urban design manager for the Hastings and Bexhill Task Force, is sifting through the design teams bidding for a slice of the action in a vast regeneration project. She is adamant this wake-up call to sleepy seaside towns in East Sussex will be a designer's dream.
'Think of the top architects; we've got the lot. The worst thing is so far we have three commissions and all these outstanding teams.We are gutted.
'We don't want to lose this extraordinary design energy and will create more opportunities.' For now the focus is on three major mixed-use developments, two in Hastings and one in Bexhill. The shortlist for the first site, Hastings Station Plaza, has just been announced and includes Cullinan, BPTW and Buschow Henley, Lifshutz Davidson, Wilkinson Eyre, Marks Barfield and a consortium led by Scott Wilkinson and featuring Bill Dunster and Michael Hopkins. The winner will be announced tomorrow (Friday).
Bringing big-name architects to Hastings is a risky business. Lwin won't comment on the ongoing saga of Ushida Findlay's proposed visitor centre on the seafront next to the historic fishing huts (AJ 18.7.02), which sparked bitter controversy in the town amid accusations of clumsy handling by the council. But she is doing all she can to ensure the £400 million of work for the Hastings and Bexhill Task Force avoids slings and arrows in 1066 country. 'It's easy to get physical regeneration wrong and we are running a massive risk. We minimise it by going for the highest quality design from the best designers.
'But we also work to a robust design brief that everybody has helped put together and which is owned collectively. We don't want surprises at the end of the process and have a very short timescale.'
The task force, which includes East Sussex, Hastings and Rother councils, South East England Development Agency and local colleges, started with a conceptual masterplan drawn up by MBM Arquitectes from Barcelona. The firm came up with ideas for a university centre, arts quarter and beach community.
Hastings was also chosen by the government to become a Millennium Community, one of seven towns gearing up to promote sustainable ways of living, and the only one on the coast. Lwin talks up her plans with a mix of design vigour and homely intimacy.
Slender tall buildings will be 'blades of light shining' onto streets of young digital businesses wired up to the new local university. However, the design showcase is more likely to involve 'quiet, refined urban repair that filters through the town, rather than loud iconic buildings that shout to be heard', she says.
'It should fill the holes and erase all the talk of urban decay that has held back Hastings for too long. Everywhere you look will be an architectural treasure either by a great name or slightly lower-key designer, ' says Lwin. She admires Rab Bennetts and Niall McLaughlin and, who knows, Ushida Findlay might even get a look-in one day.
'All this should be integrated so you don't feel you're in an architectural zoo, but a seamless townscape showing off the best of Hastings from the 11th to the 21st century, ' says Lwin, whose ambition is to ensure that people like her children, a 21-year-old textiledesign graduate daughter and 17-year-old son, 'don't have to leave town to get a life'.
Education and transport links are as critical as any building a winning architect comes up with. Five of the town's wards are among the worst 10 per cent in the country for school drop-outs and teenage pregnancies. Only 40 per cent of people own a car and the authorities are desperate for Hastings to kick the 'end-of-the-line syndrome', with better rail links and taxi services.
Lwin is one of only three architects within a local authority of 450 staff and was recruited for her skills in bridging vision to delivery with design. 'Local government can have difficulty joining them up and I understood how design, once seen as an add-on frippery, could contribute to social wellbeing and economic strength.'
Lwin trained at the Bartlett in its urbandesign heyday of the 1970s, and landed her first job at Foster Associates (where she was on the project team for the Sainsbury Centre). This was an unlikely but valuable training ground for community architecture and client responsiveness, she says.
Private-sector stints at Docklands and Tower Hamlets followed and led her to Hastings in 1988 and her first public-sector job.
She spent a decade or so with the borough's architecture department, gained a masters degree in urban design and became head of regeneration and tourism development before joining the task force.
This was a turn up. The task force was launched in 2001 after consultants on behalf of its members recommended a new bypass, just when Lwin was a leading anti-bypass activist. There was also a climate of unease caused by the Newbury bypass and the ecowarrior Swampy.
'It was unlikely the government would support a bypass costing £120 million when there's very little evidence they regenerate areas, ' she says. Instead, the task force looked at Lwin's kind of regeneration and took her on 'because sometimes it's better having a critic on the inside of the tent pissing out than outside pissing in', she laughs.
'I'm an urbanist through and through and travel to other metropolitan areas in Europe, such as Nice, Bilbao, Madrid and Lisbon, ' she adds. However, her punishing 70-hour week leaves little time for interests like dancing or cinema, and even less for boyfriends. 'They would have to understand I'm married to my job, ' she says.