England's seaside slum

Faith, hope and sub-prime: Nathan Coley reveals England’s seaside favela.

There is seaside, and then there is seaside. Jaywick, just south of Clacton on England’s Essex coast, is no upmarket resort such as snooty Frinton or Southwold. This is a tough, down-at-heel, working-class enclave, though it is vulnerable: the North Sea is an ever-present menace, and 35 people died here in the great coastal flood of 1953. But Jaywick proper is paradise compared to what you find as the town starts to peter out southwards. There, hunkered down behind the sea wall, you find the Brooklands Estate. This 1930s bungalow colony is, let’s not beat about the bush, a slum, a favela. Just the place for a Turner-shortlisted artist to insert an enigmatic object. A sculpture generated by its flaky surroundings, a house that is not a house.

There is public art, and then there’s public art. Nathan Coley, the sculptor/photographer involved here, does not do the lipstick-on-the gorilla kind of public art that is intended to sanctify or prettify its surroundings. What he does is respond to context, particularly buildings. Houses and places of worship fascinate him – both are repositories of hope, after all – and he likes to displace them. Before now he has dropped a full-scale mock-up of a Scottish croft into such improbable places as a football pitch or a city centre, and filled galleries with jostling masses of cardboard scale models of churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, chapels. Heaped together in this way, their individual faiths become pointedly irrelevant. His adopted slogan – usually displayed in big fairground lights, as for his Turner exhibition last year – is a phrase he regards as humanistically optimistic: “There Will Be No Miracles Here”.

That installation, with its slyly subverted end-of-the-pier look, would have been perhaps just too appropriate for the poor benighted seaside Brooklands Estate, a place that has been seeking miracles for most of the post-war years, and narrowly escaped being demolished entirely in the 1970s. Bungalow colonies of this kind, built cheaply on plotlands, are often charming. They served a real purpose – in this case to provide a bolthole for hard-pressed London Eastenders. My own childhood was filled with happy weekends in just such a place, built by my grandfather among sand dunes on the south coast. Modish young architects now inhabit his bungalow. But with all due deference to the resilient and cheerful Brooklands community of Jaywick, charm is in short supply there. It is a desperate place, dotted with boarded-up, derelict and vandalised properties. This is Coley’s source material.

Uniquely perhaps, its original developer in 1929 was a car enthusiast who not only named the whole place after Brooklands, a famous inter-war motor-racing circuit, but allocated each of its concrete tracks to the name of a British car maker of the time – from Austin to Wolseley Avenues by way of Riley, Humber, Singer and so on. Some say the road layout is based on the vertical bars of a Bentley radiator grille. That suggests a level of car ownership that its original inhabitants surely did not enjoy. In a recent attempt to inject life into the place, a housing association built some quite good new timber-clad social homes behind the estate in 2003, and duly named the new road Lotus Way. Wrong income bracket. I saw no Lotuses there.

The potholed avenues lead nowhere but the edge of salt marshes. This Brooklands is set worryingly low. You cannot see the sea over the defensive wall. Even on a sunny day, it does not look like much fun. And here, Coley has built his house, or a sort-of house. Having been commissioned by the Colchester-based arts agency firstsite (curator Jes Fernie), and given the whole of the county of Essex to choose from, he perhaps inevitably chose this place. The end of the line for dreams. A utopia gone wrong. A place most certainly in need of miracles, which these days take the lumbering form of officially-sanctioned development masterplans.

Coley found a vacant site on what passes for the colony’s main street leading back from the seafront, Brooklands Gardens. A little house there, number 46, had been abandoned, then torched, but its foundations were apparent. All around are the painted mostly wooden shacks – some proudly maintained, some rotting into the soil – typical of the settlement. He took the foundations, and the crookedness of the place, and its colours, and made a ghost of a house out of steel and painted planks.

There is stands, an outline,a three-dimensional sketch. When you first arrive, it doesn’t look like anything much. Slowly, however, as you scramble round it and peer into it and look at the houses and remains of houses around it, it starts to make sense. It is, for instance, deliberately wonky. It’s frozen in the act of gradual collapse. Coley has made its base out of salvaged floorboards and rubble. You can see the old drains the previous house once plugged into. The widely-spaced roughly horizontal planks of the new superstructure allow you to see in, but also keep you out, like prison bars or boundary fences.

In Coley’s original drawing for the work, it had a door and a window. As built, those become mere depressions in the structure, as defensive as the walls themselves. Meanwhile, the usual colour balance is inverted: it is white on the outside, candy-coloured on the inside. It’s a bit like deck-chair canvas, but each plank takes its colour from the paintwork of the estate, and you don’t have to look far to find examples: the house next door is immaculate primrose yellow.

On the other side, however, is a house that almost upstages Coley’s work, and certainly informs it. Number 44 is solid, brick-and-tile, bay-windowed. It looks as if it was done up fairly recently. Yet it is empty, vandalised, its windows smashed, its front door swinging open. Walk inside – there’s nothing to stop you – and you find evidence of its recent inhabitants. Wrecked sofas, and the uncomfortable sight of a burnt-out baby buggy. I got interested in this house. I searched databases for it. As recently as October 2005, it seems, somebody had bought it for £76,500. That’s big money for the Brooklands Estate, believe me. What happened to the buyers? Victims, probably, of England’s very own sub-prime crisis. There’s no estate-agent’s (realtor’s) board up. Nobody wants it now.

Such is the context that Coley has chosen to work in. It comes back to his twin obsessions of faith and architecture. Faith – or lack of it – in the fragile, just-clinging-on community, the sea level rising steadily close by. Misplaced faith in the housing market and the whole idea of the permanence of shelter. A celebration of a particular kind of unselfconscious, non-professional, way of building. And a record – or warning – of its seemingly inevitable collapse and return to rubble.

If you want to see a different, but no less real, England, come here. This is an England that is in every respect teetering. It takes a considerable artist to provide such a focusing device as Coley has done. He provides such discomfiting clarity. Of course, all but a very few of us would never normally come here. He shows you exactly why this is. 46 Brooklands Gardens is absolutely right for now. Edgy art for edgy times.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, on 23rd November 2008.

Film about the project, including interview with Nathan Coley: http://www.firstsite.uk.net/nathan_coley.html
Jes Fernie, curator: www.jesfernie.com
46 Brooklands Gardens, Jaywick CO15 2JP, will be on view until February 22.