In nineteenth-century Britain, seaside towns like Blackpool and Skegness were visited by holiday-makers in their thousands, bringing those towns prosperity and renown but, after the 1970s, their fortunes went into decline. It was to help re-assert the importance of the British seaside town for visitors and local people that Littlehampton residents, Jane Wood and Sophie Murray, decided to replace their kiosk selling chips, burgers and ice-cream, with a new café building. They asked Heatherwick Studio to design it.
With the shape of a cigarette, it was a difficult site, a narrow, forty metre-long strip of land, trapped between the promenade in front and a high-pressure sewage line behind that could not be built over. Also, the location was exposed, so although we wanted to give people a fantastic view of the sea, we also needed to shelter them. It meant keeping the building open to the sea in front and making it solid around the back. But how could we avoid making the building’s windowless rear elevation into a flat, dead façade? And how could we protect the forty metres of glass facing the sea?
The convention for modern seaside architecture is to evoke white-sailed yachts and a bygone era of Art Deco steamships but, to us, the British seaside did not conjure up images of twinkling sea, golden sand and blue skies. Our associations were with stumbling around on damp brown shingle, spotting the magically eroded objects that the sea has offered up. It made us wonder how to make a connection with the texture and richness of a British beach and whether this building could sit in the shingle like any other interesting seaside object.
The design was led by the roller shutters that the building would need to protect its windows. Rather than sticking them on like eyelids, we began to think about making the whole building out of its steel shutter boxes. We took long, undulating ribbons of steel, the same width as the shutters’ boxes, and wrapped them around a space to form the roof and walls. Angling the geometry of the box ribbons across the building gave articulation to the rear façade. By day, the roller shutters could be hidden within the building without looking like unhappy additions.
The entire metal structure was fabricated in sections by Littlehampton Welding by just two men. While the outside is raw weathered metal, the interior was sprayed with rigid insulating foam. East Beach Café is open and there are often queues to get in. As well as serving a loyal local clientele, the high-quality cooking attracts visitors from all over England.