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Getting to grips with crab culture

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The future of Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill formed the backdrop to an Architecture Week conference on the future of coastal towns. AJ sent Cedric Price

Leaving Victoria Station at 0745, our train arrived in Bexhill-on-Sea one hour and 50 minutes later. Ascending the ramp under a peeling painted Railtrack ceiling, we turned into Sea Road.

Having bought pork pies and wine for the return journey, we crossed Marina Road, making for the De La Warr Pavilion, with its contemporary profiled lettering, noting that the Ted Heath Band was appearing this week, featuring the still-with-us singing star Denis Lotis. It was cloudy and windy with the free seafront car park empty.

The conference, 'Piers, Ports & People', concerned architecture and the regeneration of coastal towns (regeneration seems to be an unquestioned good for things urban in the twenty-first century). Seeing no port, no pier but plenty of people, we entered the blacked-out, impressive conference hall, slightly puzzled by the conference title - but all should be clear by the end of the day.

The master of ceremonies was introduced, and in no time at all we were hearing of coastal old people, the junkshops of Bexhill and Bognor and the asylum-seekers of Dover. Plus poverty, single parents and isolation - not, I would suggest, unique coastal town problems. . .

The form and growth of such towns was graphically detailed and the coastal interface they entailed discussed. Dr Fred Gray of Sussex University drew attention to cultural manifestations of lasting delight occasioned by the seaside, calling in evidence the continuing popularity of the holiday postcard.

Sun and air started to be considered, and were in evidence in the subsequent description of the South Promenade at Bridlington.

This project (with a noteworthy contribution from Bruce McLean) detailed the need for including an essential time element in the initial stage of the project. Allied with this was an acceptance of speed (of walking); scale (of paddling pool); and the beneficial particular usefulness of sunlight, shadows and the everchanging weather.

In discussing Blackpool and Morecambe Bay, common themes of both size and the passing of time enabled Reg Haslem of Blackpool Council to further illuminate the challenge of continuous maintenance occasioned by changes in water level and the strength of waves. Referring to migratory bird patterns and to the frequency of the town band reminded us all of the interrelations that prevail in these most delicate of thresholds - peripheral zones.

In the concluding artist's perspective, Gordon Young reintroduced the essential element of fun with a review of work in Plymouth incorporating humour and visual delight.

A most satisfactory conclusion appeared to have been achieved - but no, the final contribution was made by the audience in a BBC Radio 3 programme, which completed the day. A possible solution was suggested that could overcome the Bexhill People's Palace problem of both finance and continuity. A trust could be established, absolving the council of financial responsibility, yet keeping the building in the public realm.

In so moving, crab-wise, this one-day conference had achieved its goal, without anyone noticing - quite.

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