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Pioneering People: Charles Holland and cultural placemaking

Interview with Charles Holland, Architect (Part One)

Charles Holland Architects is an international architecture and design studio, producing work that is multi-disciplinary in scope and includes buildings, exhibitions, public art and urban design. In the first part this extensive interview, Charles discusses his views on regeneration, placemaking and his collaborative work with Dover Arts Development (DAD) on the Pioneering Places project at Fort Burgoyne, Dover.

What initially drew you to the Pioneering Places project at Fort Burgoyne?

I am interested in the future uses of something that’s an amazing site but somewhat overlooked. Fort Burgoyne is a hidden gem – its West Wing even more so. It’s an important part of Dover’s history, it’s incredibly atmospheric and is largely unknown and underused. I’m interested in what art and architecture can do in a place like this.

Tell us about regeneration and placemaking. Is there a difference? 

The terms ‘regeneration’ and ‘placemaking’ are both trying to describe something about building a new or existing place that’s more about the aspirations of a place than the pragmatics. But one can be critical of both terms. 

Regeneration seems to suggest that a place is run down and can be synonymous with upward mobility. This can put it into conflict with the indigenous population. It can be seen bluntly as an invasion of middle class professionals in an area where people might have a different set of values that feel under threat. 

Placemaking is a happier term that can sometimes be a fig leaf. What’s important – and what the opportunity is with Dover’s Fort Burgoyne – is to make something that is genuinely part of our culture. 

What’s different about the Pioneering Places process? 

The Pioneering Places process is developed by people who are locally convened and based. It feels very organic with an open-ended investigation of what a place can be – which means it’s no fig leaf.

The Fort has an incredibly strong sense of place already. It could not be anywhere else other than Dover. It has a strong sense of military history, connections with the sea and Europe. 

Dover has a surplus of remarkable places of built archaeology and Dover Castle is so incredible that the neighbouring Fort can be overlooked. But this also means we can free up places like Fort Burgoyne to be thought of more creatively as you already have a popular, money-making machine like the castle in the town.

A House for Essex Grayson Perry Charles Holland
A House for Essex

You’ve previously worked with Grayson Perry on A House for Essex and other projects that seem to combine architectural practice, arts and culture, public artworks etc. How has this project differed from other projects you’ve worked on? 

Architecture can sometimes be conflated with development or construction. It is those things, but for me it is also a cultural discipline, the same way that art or filmmaking is. 

Working cross-discipline always felt to me like a way for architecture to be perceived more broadly as a cultural discipline. It’s about how art and architecture communicate to a wider public, generating ideas as a way of communicating with the world.

This project differs in fundamental ways from other engagement projects I’ve been involved in. It has not been commissioned as a designed piece but to engage people with questions as to what we can do with the site. It’s about getting ideas and generating interest and ideas from members of the public. 

There’s an important way in which art and architecture can do that – and this is part of what Dover Arts Development (DAD) does and what we do. It’s about how art and architecture communicate beyond their particular cultures. 

Both DAD and Joanna Jones, Director of DAD who devised the Explorers programme with me, were interested in being directly engaged with communities. This work grows out of a place it’s in. It has a dialogue with people and engages with them directly, so it’s not just parachuted in. 

Fort Burgoyne West Wing
Fort Burgoyne’s west wing battery (Photo: Joanna Jones, DAD)

What were the key challenges? 

The Fort has never been used “in anger’ although it’s been occupied by soldiers and military life, but also unoccupied for many years. The West Wing – the part of the Fort that DAD and myself have looked at – is a place that’s been overgrown and left to languish. It’s important to respect that quality for the site and make sure you don’t lose that quality. 

We want to capture what it has become now – beautiful bits of planting, trees grown up around it. It’s also difficult to get to parts of it. It’s a difficult site to maintain in the modern world, with numerous risks and safety considerations. So the challenge is to keep a natural, overgrown atmosphere whilst making it available to people.  

One of the things that has come out of the process is people finding the site and finding it very tranquil. It’s important to keep that fidelity and not to over-create or over-restore it. Thankfully, there is no pressure from The Land Trust or the project partners to do this, which is a great help. 

Whilst the site is empty now, an adjacent site is being redeveloped as new housing. So we’re also trying to anticipate what the atmosphere of the place might be like when that’s done. The ‘lost in time’ aspect will be challenged by a whole new community of people suddenly living next door. 

The challenge is to retain its beauty.

Tell us about the ‘Big Drawing” – the aim, brief, process etc? 

The ‘Big Drawing’ is intended to capture conversations that took place in the engagement process. This was a series of walks – “The Explorers Walks” – each led by a local person with a particular expertise – an architect, military historian, a member of the Ghurkas community, a local artist. Each led a walk, chose the route, always ending at Fort Burgoyne’s West Wing, arriving from any direction. The local community were invited to join the walks and share their ideas for what the Fort could be en route and at the end of each walk.  

Charles Holland big drawing fort burgoyne cultural placenaking
Charles Holland Architects, “Big Drawing’ of Fort Burgoyne’s West Wing

The Big Drawing tries to capture these conversations. It’s a dynamic drawing of a place in flux. Not offering a single solution or proposal but capturing conversations. 

These ideas for Fort Burgoyne could probably never all exist together – there’s a cafe, a lookout post, an entry bridge, bits of infrastructure, bridges – but also vaguer ideas about secret gardens, vegetable growing plots, an event space, open air cinema, performance space, festival space. And then there’s some more left-field ideas such as a zoo. 

We tried to capture all this in The Big Drawing without any hierarchy. Now is the moment to celebrate and present ideas and interactions, to show relationships with the West Wing, the Fort, how you approach the Fort and its relationship with Dover. 

School children at Fort Burgoyne
School children at Fort Burgoyne (Photo: Joanna Jones, DAD)

Some of the schoolchildren, in particular, were really excited to see some of their ideas appearing in the ‘Big Drawing’. Was this a conscious effort on your part or did it happen more organically? 

I’ve done consultation with children and young people before – often very practical and some general engagement about what things and places can become. 

The schoolchildren didn’t do a formal walk as part of The Explorers – the focus with them was being on the site itself. At the end of the process after the four Explorers Walks, we had learnt loads from experts – the artists, historians, military historians. So when we met the children we were the experts as we had accumulated knowledge. We walked them around the site, gave them notebooks and a pencil and asked them to sketch and record ideas. 

Children did it with fantastic enthusiasm – completely engaged. They came up with certain kinds of ideas that maybe others wouldn’t have thought of and these were also represented in the Big Drawing without any hierarchy. 

All members of the community – people – should be much more engaged in what’s going on and in local development generally. Including children.

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