New Architecture is making the South-East coast a destination again, and not just as a result of culture-led regeneration. Tim Abrahams visits Eastbourne, Folkestone and Deal: the towns that are changing with the tide.

The roots of the Towner Gallery go deep into Eastbourne. The collection was established in 1923 by Alderman John Towner - a member of the town's council for 30 years. On his death, he bequeathed a gift of £6,000 and 22 paintings. As Eastbourne's fortunes as a seaside resort waned, the gallery's curators worked this gift up into a collection that surveys Sussex, its landscape and its towns. Matthew Rowe, the first artistic director of the Gallery has taken great care about the purchase of contemporary work as well. Tacita Dean's 16mm film, The Green Ray, which captures the unique colours of a sunset, fits the collection and the setting perfectly.

The best known work in the gallery is by Wolfgang Tillmans. End of Land I shows a young woman Hat on her front, peering over the edge of the famous cliff. 'At Beachy Head the rolling hills and farmland of the Sussex Downs come to a violent end,' says Rowe. He is right. It is as if a carefully carved landscape has been snapped. The cliffs are a part of Eastbourne even if you can't see them from the town. At the old manor house where it was located for 80 years, the Towner Gallery brought the landscape of Sussex into the town in a charming fashion. In a powerful, graceful new building by Rick Mather Architects (RMA) it now has the opportunity to do so in a dramatic fashion.

England is undertaking are-evaluation of its seaside resorts and the Towner is just one small example of this. The astonishing success of Jane and Peter Murray's East Beach Cafe designed by Heatherwick Studio in 2007 is perhaps the most obvious. Its impact has been international. Highlife - British Airways' in-Flight magazine - has just listed it as one of the best beach cafes in the world. But there are others too. Further up the coast, the Creative Foundation, established by the Saga billionaire Roger de Haan, is administering the rent of more than 60 properties in the Old Town of Folkestone and is half-way through renovating them all. The Alison Brooks-designed arts facility, Quarterhouse, is the first proper new-build in this wholesale refurbishment of a town. Further up the coast again, in Deal, Niall McLaughlin has just completed a delightful cafe at the end of the pier.

Why is this happening? You will be offered a variety of reasons for these redevelopments along the south coast. The first is that these projects are revitalising the seaside in order to address a need. As a nation, you will be told, we are travelling abroad less. This simply isn't true. Between 1995 and 1999 the number of visits abroad by UK citizens increased from 41.3m to 53.8m, an average annual growth of 6.8 per cent. By 2007 UK residents made 69.5m visits abroad. 2007 was the first year since the war when there wasn't any growth in visits abroad but the effect of the fickle oil price on ticket costs is just as likely a cause as a fear of climate change. We will see what effect the recession has on tourist figures. Certainly, the local councils, charities and developers behind the current spate of developments didn't develop because they foresaw the collapse of the pound, they developed in order to survive. At the end of the Second World War Eastbourne was designated by the Home Office to have been 'the most raided town in the South East region'. And it has never really recovered. The redevelopment of the town in the 1960s was particularly unsubtle, although it did try to diversify the economy, and while the employment in the town is steady, the last 10 years have seen manufacturing steadily decline and this beautiful, fascinating place now has public administration rather than tourism as its main type of employer. This move is typical of the region and one which councils are trying to address. 

As Rowe makes clear though, the Towner isn't a mini-icon, an arts centre parachuted in solely to improve the image of the town. In the old manor house 380sq m of converted 18th and 19thcentury domestic space provided roughly 200sq m for temporary exhibitions, 80sq m for the permanent collection and 100sq m shared between the collection and local artists. In the new building the collection gallery on the first floor provides 200sq m of unobstructed exhibition space with 305m-high ceilings, timber flooring and exceptionally well-designed light boxes, which provide some of the best interior lighting for exhibitions in the country. On the second floor the gallery for temporary exhibits is 400sq m in size.

RMA's building is a triumph of integrating a new facility into a complicated older building and thereby reinvigorating it. The ground floor gallery provides 668sq m of space. This will be used several months of the year by the trade fairs and conferences which come to Eastbourne. The Congress Theatre is a beautiful piece of civic modernism, which was built in 1963 by Brian and Norman Westwood and provides 1,700 seats. Thus the Towner will form part of what the Council calls, when it is marketing conferences, the Devonshire Park Centre. This also includes the beautiful iron-framed Winter Gardens, built in 1875 by Henry Currey and modelled on the work of Decimus Burton at Kew. The Theatre and the Gardens are in need of refurbishment but they are excellent conference spaces. The TUC regularly returns to this complex as does the British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons.

The Towner isn't typical of seaside regeneration. It might horrify some that the Winter Gardens are used for tea dances, but this architectural zoo makes for a fascinating experience. Tellingly, you can't see the sea from the Towner, although it's only 200m away and the building faces obliquely on to it. There is a Martello Tower in the way, built in 1810 to keep Bonaparte at bay.) Instead the building addresses the town and the Downs. Indeed the beautifully framed views of the Downs are, if anything, the singular defining feature of the building. As Rowe puts it, 'the hard gallery spaces are divided by a circulation spine from the soft public areas of the building'. The corridors on the first floor and second floor are bookended by views of Eastbourne's shorefront stuccoed terraces at one end and the Lawn Tennis Club at the other. Indeed, the ground floor of the building will effectively operate as the front gate for the annual pre-Wimbledon tennis tournament.

The gallery's collection is full of views of the Sussex Downs. There are pieces by Henry Moore and Picasso in the Towner collection, but it is typified by a vast collection of work by the designer and painter Eric Ravilious. Pictures which turn the Downs into a cypher for Englishness: Cuckmere Haven, Downs in Winter and a design for the Country Life calendar in 1939, where the soft curves of southern England, become almost erotically charged in the face of foreign threat. The collection is testimony to the unlovely, unglamorous side of curating dedication to an identity that isn't one's own, extensive research and an eye for a bargain. £6,400 was paid in 1992 for a languorous portrait of Beachy Head by Leonard McComb. Although there is a surprising amount of abstract work from the 1950s in the collection, you have to look hard to find the peccadilloes of the eight previous curators. 

The building, too, is full of views of the Sussex Downs. From the activity spaces on the first floor and the cafe on the second floor, the rising escarpment which hems the town in has been framed beautifully, creating a wry opportunity to rest from the scrutiny of art. On the exterior, the elevations play with context without being subservient to it, The zinc-panelled and glazed surround inverts the relationship between glazing and steel on the theatre's front elevation and picks up on the zinc used to clad the Winter Garden's roof beyond. The rendered finish of the undulating side elevation of the building relates to the stuccoed hotels and guest houses but not in a slavish fashion. Indeed it recalls the Mendelsohnian curves of the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.

Rowe sees his gallery as operating with partners. 'We'll have difficulty attracting people down from London just to see one show,' he admits but sees himself as drawing an audience from Brighton and also becoming part of a string. By coordinating openings with the De La Warr or working with the Folkestone Triennial, he believes he can raise the profile of the gallery. Rowe's collaborative vision sits at odds with others. When Sarah Gaventa, director of CABE Space, was asked by the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) to create a name for the £45m pot of funding for cultural activities for coastal resorts she said her first thought was Drop in the Ocean. 'In the end we settled for the more dynamic Sea Change,' she says. The Towner is not one of these projects but, discussing it, Gaventa thinks that the gallery should be more ambitious in marketing itself to Londoners. One presumes that once the Jerwood Foundation has opened in Hastings - a project that received £2m from Sea Change - they will market to the capital ferociously.

Indeed there is a strangely urban focus to government strategy. In The Regional Economic Strategy 2006-2016, the South East England Development Agency gives their main priority to the coastal towns of Kent and East Sussex, The body wishes to 'create cities and towns where people choose to live by investing in an urban renaissance.' Other places are thinking about the whims of fashion in great urban centres. The current spate of regeneration is 'a sort of fashion,' says Peter Murray. 'The seaside is seeing a revival in a certain market - call it the Urban Splash market,' he says, conjuring up an image of hoards of design literate, wealthy mid-lifers with their sanitised nostalgia for the post-war welfare state.

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Deal Pier Cafe appears to be an obvious example of addressing this market. Deal's reputation in the 18th century as a violent seaport full of smugglers scrapping with the local marines has long since receded, leaving just the charming Georgian town. The cafe though, stands at the end of the only pier to be built after Second World War providing it with that all-important whiff of post-war nostalgia. Designed by Sir W Halcrow and Partners and built entirely of reinforced concrete, the pier was opened in 1957. It is 296m-long with beautiful continuous seating punctuated by small shelters and culminates in a dramatic three tiered pier head, perfect for fishing from. The original bar and lounge had fallen into a bad state of repair and Niall Mclaughlin won a competition to replace it. The project is a charming wooden pavilion, around 230sq m in size, made from prefabricated frames of iroko hardwood which are greying nicely into similar tones as the concrete. Breakfast there on a sunny day is almost worth the trip alone.

The main topic of debate across the south coast of England at the moment appears to be whether Deal Pier Cafe has gone too up market and whether the breakfasts are as good as they used to be. The anglers fishing for dabs off the pier who still pop in for bacon sandwiches don't seem to be complaining and while the Louis Poulsen lighting is just one of the really classy flourishes to the interior, Deal already is quite up market and the Cafe is simply a modern expression of it. The council has spent £500,000 wisely. The concern though is telling. Fashion has always dictated the popularity of resorts and where you pitch yourself in the market is all important.

Folkestone has traditionally struggled to identify itself with tourists, largely because it first grew as a port and only in the late-19th century did it address the tourist market, later than its neighbours and rivals. The Leas, on a small cliff above the beach, was laid out according to a Sydney Srnirke master plan. Edward VII would meet his mistress in the The Grand Hotel which was built in this area. Folkestone became a literary spot. H G Wells lived at Sandgate, west of the town, and other writers, including George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford and Henry James, stayed in the town. According to Nick Ewbank, artistic director of the Creative Foundation, 'the area had its own private police to keep the poor from the Old Town away.' Folkestone still exists as a strangely divided town, even more so now that the ferries have stopped. The gyratory by the port still leads you away up Tontine Street, passing by the Old Town quickly, with Toutes Direction signs. Folkestone is unique amongst British towns, in that it was shelled by German gun batteries rather than having bombs dropped on it. Gap sites from that time still exist. Folkestone, though, has two things going for it. The first of these is Roger de Haan who became a billionaire when he sold Saga in 2004, the company his father had established. De Haan has established a Charitable Trust which has bought up more than 60 properties in the Old Town and handed them to the Creative Foundation, another charitable body which administers them.

The effect is strange. One senses in Folkestone that the Council is not as excited as they might be by one man's single-handed attempts to rescue a pretty depressed town. Not only does the company which de Haan set up provide the main employment in the town but, he has also sponsored the new city Academy there designed by Foster and Partners, replacing a high school which was assessed at one time to be the third worst in the country. (Thanks to De Haan Folkestone is becoming something of mecca for high-tech fans: the hanging gardens of Saga's HQ by Hopkins Architects is well worth a visit). De Haan has made it clear he wants to tackle low levels of attainment in education in the town and has given the town a place for further education; the University Centre, where performing arts can be studied. Yet while de Haan is good on commissioning corporate architecture, his interventions in the Old Town - Alison Brooks' robust but perfectly scaled arts centre aside - are a little ham-fisted.

The Folkestone Triennial, an apparently ridiculous prospect has left some interesting public works around the place, despite the fact that Tracey Emin's bronze sculptures of discarded babies' clothes give the town a faintly debauched fairground feel. Nathan Coley has done one of his nice neon signs, which declares Heaven Is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens. The relationship between that and the artists that the Creative Foundation would like to attract with its cheap rents is strained. The High Street, where much of the refurbishment is taking place, is hidden away from the main thoroughfares, despite its name. It contains much evidence of craft manufacture and framing but not much art.

Creative Foundation says it does not want to have a Hoxton effect whereby artists discover a place and then are forced out once gentrification happens. Still, at least artists were attracted by Hoxton's grit. The Creative Foundation's tendency to paint newly completed buildings in bright colours is just one element of the slightly heavy-handed approach although again the Alison Brooks building with its steel mesh facade is a real note of class. This is nothing compared to the enormity of the Norman Foster marina master plan, drawn up in 2005. On the sea front near the Old Town, de Haan is seeking partnerships to finance a development based on the master plan, which will include a marina new ferry docking facilities a new university campus for 1,500 students and conference centre; 1,500 apartments 2,500 parking places; water sports facilities an ice rink and skateboarding park bars and restaurants, and powered walkways and lifts to link the harbour more closely with the town. This will require capital investment of at least £500m, so the current climate precludes against it.

However the plan is still alive and one cannot help but see it as more suited to de Haan's way of working. And it plays into the second thing that Folkestone has going for it, which is the fact that from 13 December 2009, the travel time between London and Folkestone will drop from an hour and 40 minutes to 52 minutes with a high-speed rail service. The expectation is as great as it was when the railways first arrived in the town. It seems unlikely that de Haan can reconcile having cheap facilities for artists and one of the biggest marinas on the south coast. It does show, however, that seaside towns need to embrace the spirit of competition which created them. And whilst De Haan's vision is not subtle, it will have made Folkestone a better place.

Critics of culture-led regeneration tend to object to it replacing manufacturing. Yet seaside towns have always been places of leisure and theatre and subject to the vagaries of fashion. It is exciting to watch a place like Folkestone find friends in government (The Creative Foundation is piloting the five-hours-of- arts-a-week Find Your Talent project for the DCMS.) The town is back on the winning side after years of losing out. One wonders though what will happen when the political climate changes or when Roger de Haan is gone? If we are to have culture-led regeneration then places like the Towner, which preserve and explore an identity, are more worth cherishing.