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Burgh island hotel: plenty to know by Harriet Partridge

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The AJ Writing Prize 2013: Commended

‘I don’t know much about it (I don’t think architecturally there may be a lot to know)’

This was the dismissive response when I mentioned Burgh Island Hotel to a 20th-century specialist architectural academic. But I soon found there was a lot to know, a lot that was not known, and indeed that academic snobbery can obstruct a richer understanding of a period…

A weekend unearthing boxes of letters, photos, original pamphlets, drawings, postcards and invitations - the treasure trove of the couple who had saved the building in the 1980s but had failed (despite their best efforts) to gain it the attention of the architectural scholarly press - revealed plenty to know: architectural details of distinction, revolutionary guests, cultural evolution and, crucially, a unique perspective on what it meant to be both British and Modern in the 1930s.

Burgh Island Hotel is situated on a tidal island off the Devon coast, approached (at high tide) by sea-tractor, an extraordinary vehicle introduced in 1929 and thought to be the first of its kind. The ‘hotel’ was originally an exclusive retreat by invitation, commissioned by Archibald Nettlefold, theatrical producer and founder of Nettlefold Film studios in London. The Architect was Matthew Dawson, a relatively unknown London figure who studied at the Architectural Association and Atelier Laloux in Paris before lecturing at the Bartlett School of Architecture and completing a handful of buildings, Burgh Island by far his most ‘modern’ and challenging.

‘Architecturally’ it was at the cusp of ’30s luxury design and experience, externally and internally, with the sea view ever-present: four storeys of white reinforced concrete with roof terrace, stair rotunda and cupola, extensive horizontal glazing on the south side as well as porthole windows, balconies to all suites (with concrete lattice balustrades), ballroom, dining room, palm court with ‘peacock dome’ roof and natural mermaid pool. Internal details included recessed strip lighting, curved sculptural forms, iconic furniture, a rich parquet floor and generous black vitrolite-lined stair.

Paradoxically, although Nettlefold was a ‘Modern’ man, at the forefront of the fashionable cultural scene, and despite its ‘modern’ construction and ethos, the design that he commissioned was externally not exclusively or strictly the ‘Modern’ that academics expect - the theorised, pristine, purist white box. Instead he intended to anchor the building to the ‘Treasure Island’ narrative, infused with a contemporary theatrical mood. This reveals high-end society’s awkwardness with ‘modern’ at the time: a yearning for the progressive and new, alongside the need for romanticism and escapism.

The early 1930s encapsulated an unprecedented cocktail of unrest, inspiration, aspiration, disparity, frustration and affliction, book-ended between the extremes of a 1920s of superfluous wealth and another world war that would change the face of the future.

The benefit of hindsight has diluted the potency of what modern really meant at this time. It conjured up simultaneous fear and excitement, hostility and progression, rationality and glamour, and metamorphosed into many guises, academically and aesthetically. ‘Jazz-age’, art deco and streamlined moderne fell under the ‘Moderne’ category as opposed to ‘Modernism’ - not satisfying Modernism’s integrity as they essentially sculpted forms, lines and masses for visual effect. Many British buildings were informed by these styles, particularly evident in the emerging typology of cinemas and seaside pleasurelands.

Britain’s view of pleasure and leisure was changing: the cult of the sun materialised (stirred by the sight of a suntanned Coco Chanel - who stayed at Burgh Island Hotel in the early ’30s) alongside the liberalised celebration of the body, spawning ideologies of health, cleanliness and a bright, forward-looking future. Ocean travel was epitomised through the luxurious Cunard Liners - whose founder’s great-granddaughter, Nancy Cunard (more famously known as a rebellious political, literary activist in her own right), stayed at Burgh Island Hotel in the early ’30s - through which the metaphorical and aesthetic connotations of speed revelled alongside the romantic opportunities of the sea’s limitless expanse, fuelling the thrill of ‘escape’.

Burgh Island’s remoteness contributed to its popularity. It offered something out of the ordinary, a retreat in an architectural masterpiece. Charles Mayo’s drawings of the hotel (c 1931) illustrate the experience - from ‘flappers’ by the Mermaid Pool, cocktails in the garden and arrivals on the sea tractor, to Nettlefold’s ambitions for golf and sunbathing on the roof terrace. Winston Churchill apparently played cards in the hotel’s turret, Agatha Christie set two books on the island and, if Edward VIII’s getaway to the island with Wallis Simpson is only a rumour, there is no denying that Noël Coward’s three-day visit to the island with Gertrude Lawrence turned into three weeks.

The critical position that Burgh Island Hotel has, not only in the ’30s cultural oeuvre, but in the architectural one too, is its revealing and little-discussed ‘Englishman’s’ version of what ‘Modern’ meant in ’30s Britain. Thirties architecture has been scorned for its lack of theoretical strength in exercising the word ‘Modern’. But perhaps it wasn’t trying to live up to the ‘Modern’ of the Continent? Few in the 21st century can distinguish a Modernist ’30s masterpiece from an art deco one. Why is the Midland Hotel, Morecambe, hailed as Modern, when it is constructed in brick and its sweeping curved form rendered white to look like concrete, when the Burgh Island Hotel, entirely constructed from reinforced concrete, is not ‘architecturally’ considered?

The architectural appraisal of a building is as much about its position in history and the figures it touched, as about the physical shell itself.

Perhaps Burgh Island Hotel has been ‘architecturally’ overlooked because it is too remote or does not conform to the straight-line, concrete, steel and glass of European Modernism. Yet it is this very non-conformity which makes it so revealing of English attitudes to Modern. It was not a clear-cut translation of a Modernist theory or structural form. If it had been, it might not have become the popular retreat of so many Modern ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ of the era. It satisfied their modern desires for glamour and pleasure by providing stylish escape, comfort and romance without the painful burden of progressive ideology and moral certainty.

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