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Designing the Seaside: Architecture, Society and Nature By Fred Gray, Reaktion, 2006. 336pp. £29

Fred Gray is quite angry about the lack of academic interest in a subject which has been, quite evidently, a lifelong passion.

He now pursues this passion as a professor at the University of Sussex, where he works quite close to the little lost town of Brighthelmstone, which morphed into Brighton in the early 18th century.

Seaside architecture and the international sweep of its range of graphic expression provides an ideal window onto popular culture, but pace Gray's sense of grievance, this book is proof that any such deeper discussion must be accompanied by a rich visual treatment to make the point coherently.

And it is precisely because of the pull of that imagery - here a wonderful assembly of archive material, ephemera and modern photography - that it is hard to pursue the single issue or advance an isolated theory.

Even within the narrowest confines of architectural structure, the discussion of technique, of piling and bracing, takes us from the 19th- and (in Brighton anyway) 21stcentury piers to the stillborn Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate.

Do we pursue a domestic debate bemoaning the souring of the seaside, epitomised by the filthy sewage that passes for seawater in many resorts, or the much-advertised new danger posed by the sun?

Or do we celebrate the rebirth of the coast, whether through the agency of landscape conservation and protection (in the shape of an ever-lengthening stretch of coastal walks, resort to resort), or the social reinvigoration of towns such as Brighton, Hastings or Scarborough?

Of course the topic is peculiarly elastic: look up Venice in the index and the references jump from California to Great Yarmouth. If the Venetian style is redolent of holidays and escapism, then why confine it to northern Italy? Ramsgate and Coral Gables, Florida, deserve their turns too.

Escape is everywhere in the air at the seaside, suggesting a break from the tedium of domestic routine or the limitations of a humdrum landscape (or society).

In many respects this book pulls both ways; the text (perhaps rather like everyday life at home) is sober and matter-of-fact, the images (more like a good seaside holiday) providing a compelling alternative, a tonic to the spirits, full of people, sun, sand and licence.

Let us hope that everybody who sits at the DCMS, which is now considering the location and physical form of Britain's first giant casino, has a copy of Gray's book on their desks so that decisions can be guided by the elegance of Menton or the charm of Trouville, rather than the pervasive kitsch of Las Vegas or the pointlessness of that black hole at the centre of Greenwich. Afuent as we mostly are, our leisure frames our lives, and the setting of that leisure is not at all a bad way in which to see ourselves mirrored.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape

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