A Tesco in Westgate. An Alternative Conservation Report

Westgate on Sea - F/TH/12/0769 - The alternative ‘Conservation Report’ 

Westgate on Sea is one of Thanet’s designated Conservation Areas.  The town/village is an early  high quality example of a Victorian planned new town - an influential precursor to Ebenezer Howard's garden city movement.  While the architecture and craftsmanship is of high quality, it is the integrity of the intact 1870's planned townscape defines the character of the Conservation Area. 

The area is characterised by the variety of the architecture.   The large houses were built for wealthy individuals, and there is a broad similarity in their design style while avoiding slavish copying.  This gives a visually interesting townscape, which is accentuated by the broad, boulevard style roads.  Where more intensive housing was built away from the immediate seascape area, open areas of communal ground were incorporated in the design (e.g. Adrian and  Ethelbert Squares) to give a bright and open feel to the living accommodation.

This was open sense was incorporated in the main shopping area and comprises St Mildred’s Road and Station Road.  St Mildred’s runs North/South, and the commercial area is short, bounded by the railway bridge.  The road in this area is wide, and therefore gives an open feel. The dominant building on St Mildred’s is the Carlton Cinema complex - originally built as the Town Hall.   Station road is much narrower, constrained by the railway line immediately to the South, and was always intended to be the main shopping area.  The shops all face South, and the road has a bright and open feel as the shopping area literally is ‘on the sunny side of the street’.  The only significant building on the South side is the railway station.  

Particularly distinctive characteristics of the shopping area are the wide pavements and large corrugated canopies.  Sadly, many of these are now in need of refurbishment and in some cases do look unkempt.  However, that is merely a maintenance matter; it is the structure and  general appearance that give the street its distinctive appearance.  The shops are mostly small, individual units, and are largely concentrated on the West side.  The Eastern end of the road is commercially far quieter, and leads to the residential areas of Roxburgh Road and the Squares.  

The buildings themselves on Station Road start tall on the Western side and generally reduce in height toward the east.  The eastern end largely comprises single storey buildings, but the old “Jackson Stables” block still provides an impressive, if now somewhat slightly decayed, visual termination of the main commercial area. This visually tapering effect provides a cleverly planned visual transition from commercial to residential area, while provided a ‘bookending’ effect on the commercial area as a whole.  The architecture follows the pattern of Westgate - the buildings have a sense of individuality, while collectively follow the same general pattern of Victorian design, with intricate detailing still to be found.  As a whole, the area has a pleasing sense of balance, light and openness, and the wide canopied pavements would have provided ample space for mixing and movement among shoppers and residents.

The new proposal would markedly affect the open appearance and balance of the road.

The design has evolved from a simple monolithic, rectangular block, with huge unsympathetic windows, an out of place ‘canopy’ and topped with a mock stone pediment.  It had little architectural merit, and the ‘blending features’ (canopy/pediment) had clearly simply been attached to attempt to soften the brutalism.  Such features were mere pastiches.

The design has since evolved. The current version has much more sympathetic window design, the block effect has been broken by the addition of non-structural decorative columns, and the roof line has been given more detail.  However, in the final version, the ‘canopy’ - such a distinctive part of the Westgate appearance - has been reduced to a mere ‘decoration’, and all supporting columns have been completely dispensed with.

The site lies on a long but narrow plot.  To allow access to/from the front of the building, a very narrow pavement (1.2m) is proposed.  This requires the removal of the original Victorian iron railings.  To provide access to the store, the roads will be modified with ‘build outs’ and a pedestrian crossing.  While understandable from a highways safety viewpoint, this further constrains the street appearance and enhances the ‘tunnel’ effect this will have on the current open appearance of the area. 

The building will be 2 storeys high.  While lower than the buildings opposite, it will markedly restrict the views and available light from street level.  It will be utterly dominant in that part of the street, and will remove the light and open feel of Station Road, making it seem far more built up than it actually is.  While the brickwork, mortar and other elements may ‘reflect’ and attempt to conform with the detailing in the existing buildings, the size and bulk of the building cannot be hidden. It is a modern supermarket, with ‘house style’ which is immediately recognisable.  

Such designs, with their use of clearly superficial ‘historical elements’, are largely a pastiche.  The designs soon date as fashions change, and do little in the long term to enhance the appearance of an area.  It is for this reason that the development plan explicitly warns against simply copying elements of existing architecture in an attempt to blend in.  New build in a conservation area should actively enhance its appearance and use. 

The latest treatment of the ‘canopy’ is unacceptable from a conservation perspective. It makes a mockery of this aspect of the street scene.  It is the architectural equivalent of expecting the Mayor to wear a miniature cheap plastic necklace instead of the gold chain of office.

In detail, the proposed building would utterly dominate in terms of its bulk.  Its treatment of its setting and attempting to copy the historical elements of the area is a pastiche.  The proposed narrow pavement and road modifications to allow safe access do not accord with the rest of the area, and further contribute to the sense of enclosure and cramming in.

From a conservation perspective, this proposal is flawed in basic concept.  The site is small, long and narrow.  The Northern side of Station Road was left open precisely to allow the sunlight and sense of openness to the commercial area on the South.  That is characterised by wide pavements, with distinctive canopies to protect against both the sun and the rain.  Erecting any building more than a single storey in size will fundamentally remove, for ever, that sense of light and openness.

It cannot, in any sense, be seen as an architectural or visual enhancement of the Westgate on Sea Conservation area.  It is not even neutral.  It only detracts from the appearance an appeal of this area

Therefore, the proposal does not get Conservation Team approval.

Martin Powell.

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