British obsession with beach huts

Because the British seaside is such a special experience, made up of familiar archetypal elements that are largely repeated on the coastline, we tend to think of these elements as quintessentially British. There is something in this – the British invented the idea of ​​seaside vacations, or rather reinvented it, some 2,000 years after the Romans. The habit appeared in the mid-18th century, with swimming, salt water, sea air and lazing on the beach being touted as healthy antidotes to the stress of city life. Royal patronage accelerated its popularity during the Regency period, and the arrival of railways in the 1840s made the seaside affordable and accessible. So in a way, all the paraphernalia of seaside vacations, from piers to deckchairs, is truly a British phenomenon.

The beach hut fits perfectly into this tale of britannicity. Part garden shed, part gatehouse and part Punch-and-Judy tent, these quirky little shelters – with their candy colors and sloping roofs – have a twee-like, toy-like quality. They are also an implicit admission that the weather at the British seaside is often, well, appalling. But the most British thing of all is their commodification: the rise of seaside status as a symbol of the nation’s obsession with property, second homes, and real estate prices. A hut on Mudeford Sandbank on the south coast was recently purchased for £ 330,000. Even the Queen had a beach hut at Holkham, a few miles from Sandringham. It was apparently the favorite retreat of the Queen Mother, who took her corgis to the beach. But it burned down in 2003, in an alleged case of arson. I am surprised that the story has not been adapted for the cinema.

Photo: Hulton Archives / Getty Images

The history of the beach hut is not extremely well documented, and since the huts themselves don’t last too long in the salty air, most examples are only a few years old, if not decades at all. more. Like that of historic Japanese houses, their value does not lie in the material (fragile wood and paper which is always replaced) but in their form and presence, which endure through generations. They are like ghosts, reincarnations of form. But we do know something of their origins, in the devices known as bath machines, which were popular with women changing indoors and then being rolled into the sea and going straight in, and into fishing huts. vernacular. The wheels were removed from some of the Regency grounding machines and they were parked on the beach. Fishermen’s huts, on the other hand, were appropriated as the old fishing villages were transformed into seaside resorts. Initially, the two types of huts could be found side by side – the same carpenters (or the fishermen themselves) would build the huts, sheds and net drying shelters and eventually the boats.

Beach huts reached their apotheosis in the Victorian era when seaside towns began to explode and municipalities spent fortunes building boardwalks, flower gardens, seaside shelters, bandstands, piers and theaters. They were a kind of element of domestication of the seafront, counterbalanced by the hypertrophy of the municipal seaside architecture. In the decades that followed, they slipped in and out of fashion, especially during the package holiday boom of the 1960s and 1970s, which saw English tourists almost abandon their native shores for warmer climates, but they did. never left. As with allotments, there was always a constituency, often perhaps a little older than before. And as with the allotments, there were waiting lists. Their rarity made them, yesterday and today, an increasingly sought-after commodity.

Brighton Beach, Melbourne (pictured in 2020).

Brighton Beach, Melbourne (pictured in 2020). Photo credit: Robert Cianflone ​​/ Getty Images

At its peak, the beach hut’s popularity spread across Europe and beyond, with small shelters traveling from Brighton Beach to its Australian namesake in a Melbourne suburb. Think of the Lido cabins at Visconti Death in Venice (1971) or the row of small hangars on the French Atlantic coast in Jacques Tati Monsieur Hulot’s vacation (1953). When I was studying architecture, beach huts appeared as postmodern archetypes, especially in the work of Aldo Rossi. The Italian architect has continually sketched them out, his childhood vacation memories echoing the designs of theaters and entire city districts – sometimes in the form of fantasies, sometimes realized. It was as if De Chirico had discovered the beach hut. They brightened things up and introduced a touch of surreal dreaminess into Rossi’s otherwise rational, if not austere, architecture.

Surely it has to be that cocktail of nostalgia and lazy seaside reverie that has made beach huts such an enduring presence in art, too. Tracey Emin The last thing I said was don’t leave me here consisted of a blue painted shed that she had bought with fellow artist Sarah Lucas in 1992 and then sold to Charles Saatchi for £ 75,000. Like the Queen’s Hut, it was also consumed by flames, during the devastating fire at an art storage center in Leyton in 2004. During this year’s Folkestone Triennial, a row of huts from brightly painted beach with triangles of varying shades appears as an installation by Rana Begum. In the 2008 edition of the same festival, Richard Wilson’s installation of beach huts made from the concrete slabs of a crazy golf course humorously bastard these two seaside typologies. Pablo Bronstein’s Nicholas Hawksmoor-inspired beach hut was an even stranger mash-up in 2014: a solid base with pediment and pilasters, with an odd cylindrical tower. And of course, the beach hut is featured heavily in Martin Parr’s mildly patronizing but striking work, providing the backdrop to beaches crowded with sunburned Brits.

(2021), Rana Bégum.  View of the installation on Mermaids Beach at the 2021 Creative Folkstone Triennial.

No.1054 Arpège (2021), Rana Bégum. View of the installation on Mermaids Beach at the Creative Folkestone Triennial 2021. Photo: Thierry Bal

But perhaps more than anywhere else, beach huts are a feature of bad art. It’s the default kind of second-rate beach rental on Airbnb – in the kitchen, in the washroom, on the front room wall. Heavily filtered photos with too vivid tones, naive paintings, posters in pastel colors: the art of the beach hut is a must for people who do not like art too much but think that the walls are a little bare without.

It is quite a cultural status to have acquired for a painted hangar without fittings. But then, this sparse simplicity can partly explain the hold of the beach hut on the popular imagination. The architects of the Enlightenment wrote treatises and studies speculating on what might have been the most primitive early architecture. The consensus was a wooden cabin in the forest with a small sloping roof. A bit like a beach hut, then. A place of retreat and shelter, but not luxury. Not a machine for living (not, in fact, a machine in which you can even lie down) but an anchor to a small piece of land, which belongs to you.

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