Jonathan Glancey, 27 June 2019
In fits and starts on recent train journeys, I have been reading The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald. Ostensibly a record of a walk the celebrated German writer and Anglophile made along the coast and waterways of East Anglia, the book is far more than a travelogue. So I was fascinated to read Sebald on the nitty-gritty of Lowestoft, a town I had an appointment to visit this month.
Economically precarious, yet a survivor, Lowestoft is the easternmost town of the United Kingdom. From here it is just 133 nautical miles across the North Sea to Amsterdam. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Battle of Lowestoft of June 1665 involving 212 warships was a victory for the Royal Navy.
In April 1916, four battle cruisers of the German Imperial Navy bombarded Lowestoft in the early hours of the morning, killing three people and destroying two hundred houses. The raid had been timed to coincide with the Easter Rising of the Irish Nationalists who had sought German help.
Throughout World War II, the Luftwaffe targeted Lowestoft. Per capita, it was one of the deadliest British towns. At 4.21pm on 13 January 1942, a lone Dornier Do 17 bomber appeared between snow flurries dropping four 500kg high-explosive bombs on the town centre. Many of the seventy local people killed had been taking tea at R Waller & Sons. Others died while shopping in Bosnall’s the jewellers, Boot’s the chemist and local branches of Hepworth’s, Freeman Hardy & Willis and the Fifty Shilling Tailors.
Europe had not been kind to Lowestoft. In 2016, 63 per cent of local people, on a turnout of 72.7 per cent voted to leave the European Union. This – being East Anglia – was as much a two-finger salute to Westminster as it was to Brussels (and The Hague and Berlin, too). It was also the vote of a downtrodden corner of England, which takes me back to W G Sebald who was ‘unprepared for the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of me in Lowestoft’. It was, he wrote, one thing to read about unemployment blackspots in newspapers, but quite another to walk ‘on a cheerless evening, past rows of run-down houses with mean little front gardens; and, having reached the town centre, to find nothing but amusement arcades, bingo halls, betting shops, video stores, pubs that emit a sour reek of beer from their doorways, cheap markets and seedy bed-and-breakfast establishments with names like Ocean Dawn, Beachcomber, Balmoral or Layla Lorraine’.
Has anyone else, I thought, got it in for Lowestoft? And, yet, I came here this month to witness a dozen people, each from a different country, freely swear an oath to Queen Elizabeth II to become citizens of the United Kingdom. The building this unassuming ceremony took place in was Riverside, new council offices on an old seafront. What struck me more than anything else was the mundane nature of the building. There was nothing here that lifted the spirit, no sense of occasion or ceremony. Like so many new local authority buildings, whether in England or across contemporary Europe, Riverside might easily be mistaken for a gym, a carpet warehouse, the regional headquarters of an insurance company, a chain hotel or some out-of-the-packet new school.
While the staff were friendly and the building clean, there was nothing in the architecture, nothing in its plan or section or décor, to say this was a public building that mattered, and nothing embodied in its design to help it distinguish Lowestoft from any other English or European town. Riverside is a sign of particular times: the belief that new public buildings should be informal and largely indistinguishable from new shops. A belief, too, that public events held inside them should be no more formal than an episode of EastEnders, the long-running BBC Television soap opera.
This informality – these ‘dress-down Friday’ public buildings – make such life-changing events as taking up citizenship of another country little more than the act of popping across the road to buy a loaf of bread in a convenience store. Until Riverside, the local authority encompassing Lowestoft occupied the Town Hall, an Italianate design of the late 1850s and, in its own way, a distant scion of the great Renaissance Italian town halls from Sienna onwards. Not that a contemporary town hall needs to be a thing of columns, pediments and cornices. It might adopt any number of forms and be constructed from all sorts of materials. But what it could have is a sequence of spaces and rooms that make people feel special.
Those receiving their British citizenship at Riverside had dressed up for the well-intended occasion. The serviceable and emotionally distant new building, however, had risen neither to their sense of occasion nor to the town’s history. Rather than ‘Welcome to the United Kingdom’, Riverside might just as well have said, ‘Enter the Rings of Saturn’.