Archive for December, 2007

Clock Tower

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the great architectural writer, described it as ‘worthless’. Many in Brighton would disagree.

Whether or not it is devoid of architectural merit, due its prominent position on the junction of Queen’s Road, North Street and West Street, the Clock Tower it has its uses. Firstly, it is a great meeting point! It is 75ft high and features portraits of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra. Directions to Brighton Station, Kemp Town, the seafront and Hove are given on projections, admittedly not that visible, on the sides of the structure. The Clock Tower was designed by John Johnson and built in 1888 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee at a cost of £2,000. One of its most distinctive features is its 16ft mast with accompanying gilt-copper sphere.

The purpose of the delightful mechanism, a ‘time ball’, was apparently to aid passing ships in setting their chronometers. The sphere rose up the mast hydraulically each hour and fell once it reached the top. It was discontinued in 1902 because horses were frightened by its sound. Rather fittingly, Brighton & Hove City Council installed a new and silent mechanism in 2002 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. It broke soon afterwards and generally works well now, despite a temporary glitch at the time of writing. The original mechanism was designed by Magnus Volk who was also responsible for establishing the first telephone link in Brighton, installing electricity in the Royal Pavilion and, most famously, building Volk’s Railway on the Kemp Town seafront.

The Clock Tower was built for a good cause using decent materials so I’m not too sure why Sir Nikolaus was so vociferous in his review. To make a comparison, the clock tower in Preston Park was built in 1891, just several years afterwards, in red-brick and terracotta. I would admit that the Preston Park structure is considerably superior due to its imposing position and originality. I wonder what Sir Nikolaus would have made of it though.

A rather unfortunate run of new buildings has been constructed to the north-west of the Clock Tower which is a great shame, especially in such an important location. One half is mock-Victorian, the other simply looks unfinished. This poor effort joined the large plastic building below Boots, 80 Grand Parade and Tesco on Church Road as classic examples – of how not to do it.


Brighton Town Hall

It has been nearly a year since I wrote about the Old Police Cells Museum at Brighton Town Hall. Much has changed since then.

The first building in Brighton that was called the Town Hall was a two storey building of 1727 on the site of what is today Bartholomew Square. It was used mainly as a workhouse and was demolished in 1823; several years before work on a replacement commenced. The foundation stone of the current Town Hall was laid in 1830 by Thomas Read Kemp, a very prominent local figure. He is of course the namesake of Kemp Town but was also a Member of Parliament, lord of the manor, a town commissioner, a magistrate, a philanthropist, a property developer and founder of a dissenting religious sect! There would have been ample room for the town commissioners when it was built but the Council’s offices are today spread all around Brighton & Hove.

The Town Hall was designed by Thomas Cooper who was actually a town commissioner himself. Cooper also designed the Bedford Hotel of 1829 which was replaced by what is now the Holiday Inn following a fire in 1964. The Town Hall and the Bedford shared several common features such as Classical proportions and massive Ionic columns. The interior of the Town Hall is a delight and its greatest assets are the intricate staircases and a mosaic of the coat of arms of Brighton. The building was Grade II Listed in 1971.

Brighton Borough Police was formed in 1838 and moved straight into the basement of Brighton Town Hall. Their premises were enlarged in 1897-9 and a bicycle was purchased. Brighton’s first Chief Constable, Henry Solomon was killed in the Town Hall in 1844 by a carpet thief, John Lawrence, whom he was interviewing. Lawrence smashed Solomon’s skull with a poker that he grabbed from a fireplace and was hung soon afterwards. Brighton Police moved into the current John Street premises in 1965.

Although Brighton and Hove were amalgamated in 1997, Brighton Town Hall and Hove Town Hall have both retained their names and are used for different purposes by Brighton & Hove City Council. Of the former cells in the basement (8 male and 5 female), the Old Police Cells Museum now incorporates 3 male and 5 female. The Museum now even has its own website: www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk. Check it out asap to book a visit.


Furze Croft

Despite my great interest in the Regency architecture of Brighton & Hove, it is not in fact my favourite style.

There’s a small picture shop on Nile Street in the Lanes where I first met Tamara de Lempicka; well, copies of her paintings anyway. This was quite a few years ago and I had no idea at the time what Art Deco meant. She painted fast cars, empowered women and mysterious men. The Art Deco movement was prevalent during the 1920s and 30s and manifested itself within various disciplines including architecture, interior design, fashion, art and car design. Despite there being no obvious connection between de Lempicka’s paintings and the buildings of the day, there certainly is one there. Even the architectural style itself is hard to define. Elements include, though this list is by no means exhaustive, high quality stone masonry, Terrazo floors, curved glass, bronze door furniture, flat roofs and intricate fenestration.

Bearing in mind the excitement surrounding the current Tutankhamen exhibition in London, it is worth noting that the Art Deco movement was heavily influenced by the 1922 discovery of that King’s tomb. Instead of travelling to Egypt though, last year, I went to New York to see some of the world’s most famous Art Deco buildings such as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the Rockefeller Centre. On a smaller scale, Hove has several rather respectable Art Deco buildings of its own such as 4 Grand Avenue, Courtenay Gate on the seafront, and, on Furze Hill, both Wick Hall and Furze Croft.

Furze Croft and Wick Hall, two large residential blocks, were built across the road from each other during the 1930s by Bell Modern Flats; each on the site of a single house. Furze Croft replaced a house known variously as ‘Wick House’, ‘Wick Hill’ and ‘The Wick’. It is in fact made up of two adjoined but separate buildings with separate entrances and lift shafts. It has many of the features that I would expect of an Art Deco building – BMA (Bronze Metal Antique) door handles, Crittle windows with curved glass on the bays, and a steel frame.

It is not often that I approve of the destruction of a single house to make flats but Furze Croft and its Art Deco counterparts remind me that it’s not flats that I’m against; it’s bad buildings. Developers take note.