The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Listing bid to save Alsop’s nautical Jersey café

Alsop and Störmer’s La Frégate Cafe shortly after opening.

Image: The Architects Journal, 1997

C20 has submitted an application via Jersey Heritage to list La Frégate café – one of the earliest completed UK works by Stirling Prize winning architect Will Alsop.

The Jersey Development Company recently announced their intention to redevelop the Southwest waterfront area of St. Helier, involving a reprofiling of the sea wall flood defences and promenade area, where La Frégate café is sited. While the developer declined to comment, sources indicate the proposals would likely see the demolition of the café, with no current plans to explore the feasibility of relocating the structure.

Built in 1997 to designs by Alsop and Störmer, La Frégate was intended to act as a catalyst for high-quality development on the waterfront. Supported on 24 stout concrete columns, the café’s ‘hull’ comprises a steel primary structure incorporating fabricated curved steel ‘ribs’ and a secondary carcassing of timber. The outer cladding is in Western red cedar shiplap boarding and it’s sleek form was reportedly tested in British Aerospace’s wind tunnel at Bath at model stage, to see how it would cope in its coastal location.
The timber cladding is punctured by small variously-sized rectangular windows and serving hatches – reminiscent of gun-ports – with entry via gullwing doors in the sides and glazed entrances at the ‘bow’ and ‘stern’ of the structure.

Both the building’s exterior and its interior spaces and finishes are remarkably well preserved, with very few alterations having taken place since 1997.

Alsop’s original sketch of the Jersey cafe.

Image: The Architects Journal 1997

While it initially met with a hostile reaction from locals – earning unflattering nicknames like the ‘pregnant armadillo and ‘beached whale’ – attitudes have softened somewhat over the past 25 years, gradually earning La Frégate the status of a beloved, if unexpected, island landmark.

It was later exhibited at the Sao Paolo  International Architecture Biennale, while the Independent declared the building ‘had put Jersey for the first time on the international design map’. In the wake of Alsop’s death in 2018, the Jersey Evening Post described it as a ‘A legacy to be proud of’, stating that ‘The bold design of La Frégate still stands out from the majority of bland, conventional building design in Jersey.’

In his original hastily sketched concept, Alsop had suggested its curving was a large fish, though it later becamae to be interpreted as an upturned ship hull – appropriate given the local area’s historic shipbuilding industry and the fact that timber hulled boats had once been constructed on the same site. Parallels can perhaps also be drawn to the coastal tradition of repurposing upturned hulls for buildings, such as the boat sheds of Lindisfarne and the boat homes of Équihen-Plage.

La Frégate café today, both exterior and interior are remarkably well preserved, with very few alterations having taken place since 1997

Image: Mappio

As a small-scale experimental structure, La Frégate can also be mentioned alongside the likes of James Stirling’s Biennale bookshop (1991), Michael Hopkins and Partners’ Buckingham Palace ticket office (1995) and Alsop & Stormer’s own Visitor Centre at Cardiff Bay (1991), as well as Piers Gough’s Notting Hill flower stall (1993)

On the attempts to save the café, C20 Director Catherine Croft said:

‘It’s a fun, imaginative design, there is a real tradition of letting rip with seaside structures, and we should be embracing it as part of that joyful legacy – another example would be the Heatherwick café at Littlehampton. We need more of this sort of thing!’

Meanwhile, Alsop’s former partner Jan Störmer, speaking with the AJ, expressed hopes that it could be relocated:

‘It is a great pity that this structure, which for many years has given the island a very special place, is to be demolished, for whatever reasons.

‘The sculptural idea of the design is that of stranded “ark”, which of course can be carried on with next flood – so the location is not so important. Certainly, I can speak for my late friend and partner Will Alsop, and myself, that we hope that La Frégate will find another place on the beautiful island of Jersey.’