These pictures were taken on a recent visit to Teignmouth in South Devon in the UK. The aim of this post is to show how the form of the promenade embodies a contradiction in the relationship to nature that is expressed at the seaside; the construction both celebrates and denies the liminality and temporality of the beach itself. The permanent structure of the promenade fixes this contradiction in space.
We can see in this picture the replication of the relationship between the sea and the beach in the spatial arrangement of the promenade. The beach stands as a bullwark to the expanse of the sea and as it’s artifact. The beach in turn is contained by the permanance of the concrete promenade which, although it gives the impression of being a leisurely space is in fact the most active space of the seafront, a place of transit for people and cars moving between the natural and the manmade, as well as between spaces of consumption and lesiure. The promenade also seperates the beach from a constructed natural space in which the local authority maintains gardens and flower displays, a now empty lido, a play area and a bowling green. Finally, a road forms another active strip between the town-proper and the sea. This configuration is common to seaside promenades where layers of protection and commodification produce a striated space in which the liminality of the coast is brought in and atomised into a manageable mix of uses.
This photo shows the first strip of the promenade form, matching the line of the beach and even mimicing its colour in this case. It offers the same expansive perspective of depth and, in the picture below, the same bleak uniformity as the beach itself on a wet cloudy day.
Suddenly, the promenade takes on the curvature of the bay and the promenaders are offered the opportunity to pay for the hire of a relaxing deck chair on a bizzare simulacrum of the natural environment of the beach.
Another space of consumtion also mimics the natural relationship between land and sea, inviting us into the excitement of that relationship in a celebration of engineering, dominance and capital.
Once the defenses were in place, planners were free to re-create nature behind the scenes, produncg further strips of space; mimicing again the relationship between land and sea. In this case, a lido creates a minuture, safe sea.
Finally, the physical structure of the promenade itself takes the shape of a wave resisting the encroachment of the sea. It serves as a mirror, reflecting the force of the waves back onto themselves to prevent erosion, with brutalist poured concrete gateways providing defensible enterance and exit points for tourists foolhardy enough to expose themselves to the force of nature.
While I was in Teignmouth, racing up and down the promenade between the beach and the cafe with my family to build sandcastles in between showers of rain, I had a conversation with an elderly local resident who told me how the original promenade had, until the 1960s, been a hollow structure supported by pillars. This meant that holidaymakers could run “under the boardwalk” when it rained, or set up camp underneath in anticipation of typical British summer weather. The changes were supposed to prevent flooding, but made little difference. How different contemporary seaside experiences would have been then, with a promenade that spoke of shelter and enjoyment rather than defence…
The configuration of promenade space exemplifies the contradiction in oure relationship to the liminality of the beach. The space lovingly reproduces the exciting geometry of the coast in strips of concrete and green, fluid and fixed, whilst also defending us againt the natural forces that have produced that geometry. The promenade offers us constructed natural forms, allied with an opportunity to consume and to appreciate the power we have exerted over our environment in the name of consumption. The liminality of the beach is packaged and made ‘safe’ by a concrete construction that protects from true liminality and its destructive potential.