Whitstable Approaches is the name of the tidal area around Whitstable Bay. It is also a group of development projects by Arrant Land in partnership with Peech & Pear and a host of collaborators, which aim to explore how a town with a distinct visual identity can be enhanced by adventurous but contextual contemporary design, and thoughtful ethical development.

Currently two sites, each project will allow us to develop ideas about how domestic contemporary architecture can be informed by, and contribute towards, the strength of its context.

Whitstable is a town with a recognisable visual identity. It is also an authentic and informal place. Authenticity inhabits its buildings and beach huts, its shopfronts and signage, its sunsets, its harbour, even its food and retailing.

Narrow fisherman’s cottages and black weather boarded huts are relatively obvious built identifiers of the town, but there are many more subtle features and characteristics which also make important contributions to the town’s sense of place.

Each Whitstable Approaches project will consider how the contemporary deployment of these features can be woven into new development and root the buildings in the town.

Sea Street: Overhanging uppers, robust ground stories, horizontal changes of material

The project was initiated by the availability of the property which previously occupied Haddo Yard. The prominent position of the site led to the development of a range of ideas about what is distinct about Whitstable and how this can be reflected or even strengthened by a new building. The opportunity felt important and the new building takes seriously its civic responsibility to contribute towards the town’s identity.

Black Gables, including Haddo Yard

In planning terms, our treatment of the site became a working through of the idea, enshrined in the National Planning Policy Framework (2012), that new development should ‘seek to reinforce or promote local distinctiveness’, and a reaction against the negative and homogenizing effects of an unimaginative interpretation of the guidance.

NPPF 7.60

Planning policies and decisions should not attempt to impose architectural styles or particular tastes and they should not stifle innovation, originality or initiative through unsubstantiated requirements to conform to certain development forms or styles. It is, however, proper to seek to promote or reinforce local distinctiveness.

As a whole, an optimistic reading of the paragraph reveals a progressive and thoughtful ambition to encourage endeavour alongside an attention to context. But this is a problematic concept and may seem almost paradoxical to some.

Instead of encouraging confident expressive architecture, a myopic interpretation of the guidance has created a mandate to insist that new buildings, a) should look the same as the existing buildings in the area, or b) can be a completely generic ‘modern’ style but with some superficial gesture towards context (a bit of weatherboarding for example). In town centres, and particularly in places like Whitstable, the effect of this can be an excruciatingly derivative pastiche and the dilution of the very authenticity which characterises the town. The effect is the inverse of what we hope the guidance aims to achieve – that everywhere will look like a diluted and poor imitation of itself rather than an enriched version.

'Victorian' terraces

This policy is particularly problematic where variety and idiosyncrasy are central to a place’s distinctiveness. If variety is what is distinct, how do you decide what variety of variety will add to that sense and what variety will dilute it?

Further, what is ‘distinctiveness’?

Domestic decoration

‘Distinctive’ (or worse, ‘distinction’) is a word which has become a property cliché. It appears, stripped of meaning, alongside ‘executive’, ‘luxury’ and ‘prestigious’ on numerous glossy hoardings – yet its meaning is noble and principled. For us it is about making something identifiably of itself, that examines the ‘normal’ way of doing things and that recognises every opportunity to deploy creative solutions.

Whitstable Approaches is not an attempt to make buildings which ‘fit in’ by going unnoticed, but which make positive and confident contributions towards a more congruous, coherent and distinctly Whitstable character.