My daily lunchtime walk most often takes me out through Swansea’s Maritime Quarter, a tight, mostly white little knuckle of flats, restaurants and shops built out on the cold, curled land between the Bay on one side and the old South Dock on the other. It was built to be an isthmus between the regeneration zone to the east, beyond the mouth of the Tawe river, and the city itself. The barrages and sail bridges and swing locks across the various bodies of water (marina, mudflat, fountain, salmon ladder) were built, but the regeneration is slow, the land still hoarded, the money tied up in university pension schemes and dissipating EU aid. In consequence, for the last thirty years the Quarter has been a sort of placeholder peninsula. If you go there (and you do not live there) there is nothing to do but walk about it and through it and then go back the way you came. It’s easy to tell the people doing this, because they put all their efforts into projecting the air of somebody in transit, on their way to parts much farther; the streets of the Quarter are merely a way to convey themselves. Places like the Quarter are not the sorts of places that wry, intelligent, urbane people are supposed to linger, or to like. Its architectural style is Early Travelodge Devotional; everything is rusting starkly in the salt air; the only plants allowed to grow are those that have proved themselves, genetically, to tow the line, and bear primary, ornamental, poisonous fruit; and the paving goes everywhere right up to the root boles of the still-young birch trees which line the not-quite avenues. The only responses that such places are supposed to elicit are repulsion or a psychogeographic fascination.
Usually, I’m no different; I think far too much about the time I had to walk from the train station to the coach station in Milton Keynes, and still silently enumerate all the ways it reminded me of Nuremberg or a gigantic, antiseptic kidney dish. I am not the sort of person to let modern architecture off lightly. Yet I cannot help but love the Maritime Quarter without cynicism, and without much concern. It is my favourite place in Swansea, in particular the Maritime Walk which runs between the retirement apartments and the concrete sea wall. For one thing, it is uncommonly quiet. These sorts of developments are always built at a scale which is only slightly unhuman, like a stable or a portico; there’s something distinctly American about it, even though access for cars around the Quarter is mostly restricted. However, even if I see ten, twenty, thirty other walkers or joggers or strollers or cyclists, they are soon swallowed by the acrage. I don’t want to label it as one of Marc Augé’s non places, as that would be to wilfully ignore the lived furniture of the place; bikes threaded through the railings, the sound of woks from every other window, the Fisher Price castles on the balconies filling with sand and pigeon eggs. It is not a dead place in the way that Augé meant, because for these (mostly unseen) people it is a some-place; a new place, perhaps, in as much as that remains a crime. But it does have that weightlessness that Augé’s term describes; for me, with no friends living here, the excessive streets always moving me on, the shallow steps, wheelchair ramps; it is a place of easy accessibility, of non-committal passage. I can move as loose as light through it. And how the light moves too; it’s a luminous sort of place, where the glow from the Bay pinballs about and finds it way, briefly, into unlikely wells; dazzling me from restaurant smoke hoods, the bells of motorbikes parked in the shade, the hot incense-point of a plane-wing making its way over Cornwall. As on a ship, anything that isn’t battened down seems to eventually find its way out of the bailers, whether it’s light or people or Tesco delivery vans or smells or rubbish or dust or sand. Sometimes, on a narrow service street as I scud back to my office, away from the lunar curve of the beach with its sidewinders and its terriers running and North Devon headshy in the distance, I am delivered a brief present, some pleasant smell that has no origin, and slips off just as quickly: rich Chinese food; fish heads mellowed; toothpaste; always seeming to suit the sort of day I’m having.
I think what I most love about this place is that it presents a constant challenge of interpretation. The Quarter was built in 1987, and like most of the developments of its era the elements of public art which were incorporated into the budget can easily appear as cynical adornments, fulfilling some long-gone statute of public responsibility; sofa-cushion money for incongruous steel sails, quartz fish, aggregate mermaids, Mooreish statuary, herm-like dedications to frigates and destroyers bearing the names of local coves. When we see ‘public art’ like this, in a place like this, we are tempted to hate it as a betrayal, an afterthought, propaganda for some unthinking ideology, standing for everything but that which they represent. I try and avoid this easy response, and look past the unweathered brick, and think of Exeter Cathedral, and its great eastern door which I used to walk past every day when I lived there; and how it was utterly festooned with saints, as subtle as Times Square or Piccadilly Circus; now smoothed into mystic wallpaper, rather than theological advertisement, by acid rain. The curse of the recent leads to other, specialist thoughts as well; thoughts that something centuries-old would never prompt, even though it should. When I’m in the Quarter, I’m constantly trying to separate my experiences into two categories: those the architects wished for me, in their blueprints and impact studies, and those which have arisen in me, there, today, as unintentional as a breeze. I never asked that of a cathedral; I just loved it unconditionally and unthinkingly, and trusted it implicitly. Every uplifting impression, every angle of light, seemed carved and deliberated by yeomen, hoisted there on oak cranes for my personal revelation. We don’t allow modern, municipal architects just building buildings, that same vision.
I constantly try and divine, every time I move through the development, at a pace I usually reserve for train platforms, whether what I am feeling, seeing and thinking was intended in some way. Did the architects intend for the wind to pull you up the stepped streets to the waterfront, like an exoskeleton, so that you barely have to use your muscles at all? Did they intend for the water of the quays to be visible from the Walk, so that on both sides of your route there is water, one side wild, one domesticated? Did they intend for the Bora-Bora-lime-green render on eastern walls to, between three and four o-clock, lend the western walls the colour of a sea-cave ceiling? Or is it all an intentional fallacy? And if so, what should I think about the place now, that it so beautifully and uncomprehendingly does it anyway, in fact?
Every time I come there is something new to consider. I’ve been walking here for over a year, and I’ve only just this previous week noticed these cartouches, set both at head and double-decker-bus height in the walls of the Maritime Walk apartments. There are probably fifty of them all told, some directly facing the sea and the weather, and others tucked at acute angles in the lees. It is these sheltered examples which tells me the subject matter of the rest; rigging, lightships, eyelets, bladderwrack, an aesthetic that might have been lazy pastiche, or maybe deep allusion. I can only assume that those facing the sea were designed along the same lines, because they have been carved from such soft stone that, in just over thirty years, they have been eroded almost completely. Some have even gone back in beyond the line of the building itself, nibbling into the very beginnings of stippled, concave grottoes.
What am I to think? I find it hard to believe that the developers didn’t know that sandstone would erode this quickly, particularly in sea air. We aren’t used to thinking of legacy when it comes to these modern developments: there is always the creeping sense that they will be gone the next time we look, and replaced with something better, or not at all. I’m trying very hard, but something in me still rebels at the idea of a modern housing development being built with its ruin value in mind. Did some planning official (probably only just retired, still reachable by email, over all these years) sit and think about inconstancy, the movable coast, the softening of years, and impregnate their contribution with this almost-futile, barely-glimpsed mark of commentary, deferred until the very end of their career? Or is it just a touch of ill-planned neglect, as accidental and emergently delightful as the coverlet of sand that lifts up from the dunes every day, despite the best efforts of hoardings and sweepers and dykes, and shrouds the corners of streets like the reaches of Aladdin’s cave?