Every three years, the seaside town of Folkestone on the southeast coast of England invites artists to use the city space as their ‘canvas,’ allowing locals and visitors alike to see the town from a different perspective. By stepping outside of the gallery context, the Triennial exposes everyone to this novel view – even those just stopping by for some fish & chips.

On arrival, you might find yourself hard-pressed to spot anything out of the ordinary. Folkestone seems pleasant enough, with its beach and arcades – the blueprint of a British seaside resort. But scratch the surface and soon you encounter plenty of interesting discoveries.

As part of this immersive experience, the Folkestone Triennial tackles issues affecting any urban center: How can cities become more sustainable? How can we utilize the architecture of previous generations? How will we feed the cities of the future? Or, put more simply, how can a city become a more enriching place to live?

Bamboo, fish and penthouses

The old harbor takes center stage, with Gabriel Lester’s bamboo sculpture rising high above the unused railway line like an exotic monolith. Lester wants his piece to “activate” the obsolete line, allowing people to ponder its repurposing whilst “having a coffee” and gazing at the sea.

Gabriel Lester’s bamboo sculpture rises high above the unused railway line
Gabriel Lester’s bamboo sculpture rises high above the unused railway line
Photo: courtesy Thierry Bal

We duly enjoy the views from every angle (aided by a welcome dose of sunny rays) and then move on to the Glassworks Sixth Form Centre for some fish and chips – of a slightly different nature:

The angular, modern structure with its odd, tent-like roof houses an urban farm that produces everything you need for the UK’s most famous dish: A self-sustaining aquaculture teeming with fish is paired with potato and mint plants on the same complex water cycle.

Andrew Merritt, one half of the company responsible for the farm, tells me why he decided to set up shop above the school. “There needs to be more education on the reality of where our food comes from. Growing food is definitely one of the biggest challenges in making the cities of the future more sustainable.” And while the students consume some of the food, the rest is given to local restaurants.

Walking down Tontine Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, we stumble across one of the five Pent House sculptures marking the course of the town’s old (now subterranean) river. Waterways brought prosperity to the area, hence the titular pun (“pent” house). Crafted by two local artists and supported by the Triennial’s patrons of The Creative Foundation, the sculptures memorialize the city’s easily forgotten history through art.

Interactive urban space

The public art on display in Folkestone allows people to see the town in a different light. Many of the exhibits are walk-in sculptures, encouraging visitors to become part of the work itself. According to curator Lewis Biggs, “if you can get people to change their physical position, their concepts and ways of perceiving may also be refreshed.” The Triennial aims to reinvigorate the town through public interaction with urban space – something to delight in and engage with.

One of Folkestone’s most striking architectural features is the Ford Viaduct. Rising high above the town, it affords incredible views of the sea and the hills behind the city. Ooze architects have transformed one of its arches into a wind-powered lift that only operates once it has collected enough energy, making it completely sustainable. I ask Sylvain of Ooze architects about the public benefits of such art. “It is about rediscovering the ordinary through a new filter and giving this filter to the community. Depending on how the idea is treated, it can embody a prospect of change and optimism.”

Digging Folkestone!

In the Triennial’s spirit of ‘activation,’ of making Folkestone a space to explore and discover, we spend our final hour digging for gold on the beach as part of Michael Sailstorfer’s Folkestone Digs. Although we did not strike it rich, it gave us a sense of hope and excitement I have never had on any other beach.

Radically reimagined through the arts, this archetypical seaside town offers an inclusive experience. With mothers and children happily digging by our side, this reinterpretation of the city’s grounds and spaces has already found its most important audience: the people that use and occupy them in everyday life.

The Luckiest Place on Earth, at Folkestone Central Railway Bridge, transforms the bridge into a Lucky Gateway to the town through artistic sleight of hand
The Luckiest Place on Earth by Strange Cargo, at Folkestone Central Railway Bridge, transforms the bridge into a Lucky Gateway to the town through artistic sleight of hand
Photo: courtesy Thierry Bal
It makes use of unused plinth-like structures on the bridge walls
It makes use of unused plinth-like structures on the bridge walls;
Photo: courtesy Thierry Bal
Radically reimagined through the arts, this archetypical seaside town offers an inclusive experience
Radically reimagined through the arts, Folkestone offers an inclusive experience
Photo: courtesy Thierry Bal

Header image: Courtesy Thierry Bal