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.