Archive for March, 2008

Brussels Art Nouveau

Following several recent columns on Furze Croft, St. Margaret’s and the Sussex Masonic Centre – some of Brighton & Hove’s finest 1920s and 30s Art Deco gems – I set off to Brussels to find more examples in Europe’s capital. After just a little research, a piece on Art Nouveau seemed far more appropriate. My last trip to Brussels was all about the usual tourist sites. This time, I set out to visit a very specific set of buildings.

Victor Horta (1861-1947) was a Belgian architect and designer. The Hôtel Tassel is a townhouse at 6 Rue Paul-Emile Jansonstraat, which was built by Horta in 1893-4 for Emile Tassel, the Belgian scientist. Although it was not Horta’s first townhouse, it is considered to be the first ever Art Nouveau building due to its layout, materials and decoration. Everything in and on the house was made to Horta’s own designs including the stained glass windows, mosaic floors and electrical fittings.

The Hôtel Tassel is certainly the most historically important Art Nouveau building in Brussels. Along with three of Horta’s other buildings, it was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. To put that into context, in the south-east of England, (not including London), only three sites (all in Canterbury) have been given that same recognition. Despite this, another building altogether, the Old England Building, which houses Le Musée des Instruments de Musique, is possibly the most charming. Its exterior is simultaneously organic and industrial – both alive and machined. It is one of the most original buildings that I’ve ever seen.

Art Nouveau arose from the Arts & Crafts Movement and for examples in the UK, I would recommend the splendid buildings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow. There are many other examples across the continent – many of the best are in France – but I’m particularly fond of the work of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. Like Art Deco, Art Nouveau is a difficult style to define. It crosses many disciplines including even jewelry, textiles and household utensils. It is characterised by a natural theme, often floral, with a respectful nod towards technology.

Nothing’s likely to match my trip to New York in 2006 when I visited some of the world’s most famous Art Deco buildings including the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the Rockefeller Centre. However, Brussels is certainly the place to go for Art Nouveau.


St Andrew’s Church Clock and Crypt

Since I wrote about their formation two years ago, the Friends of St. Andrew’s have certainly been busy.

St. Andrew’s Church on Waterloo Street in Hove now has heating and its rusty clock has been sent away for repair. I had seen most of the building already so this time I set out to see the hidden areas – and I was not disappointed. Removing the heavy clock, even in pieces, must have been quite a task as the climb to it is not exactly straightforward. Once there, I was able to ascend another ladder leading to the belfry which has great views across the rooftops. The Friends will soon be in the satisfying position of having to decide just when the impressive bell, which hasn’t been in operation for many years, will actually strike. See www.visitstandrews.org for more details.

Not to be confused with St. Andrew’s Old Church on Church Road, St. Andrew’s Church was built from 1824 to 1828 to the designs of Charles Barry (later ‘Sir’ Charles Barry after designing the Houses of Parliament). It was built to serve Brunswick Town but the architect of the rest of the development, Charles Augustin Busby, was not used. This was not the only time that Barry was chosen over Busby. Both St. Peter’s Church and the Royal Sussex County Hospital are other examples.

St. Andrew’s is open on Sundays from 2:00-4:00pm but a tour of the crypt is not something that’s generally on offer. Slippery steps on the front of the building lead down to a long tunnel from which the crypt is reached. The crypt is made up of another long tunnel with five vaulted chambers leading off it. 59 coffins are arranged on iron shelves, often by family, and there is space for around 300. It was closed for burials in 1854 so two and a half of the chambers are actually empty. Sadly, because it should really have been his building, Busby was not buried in St. Andrew’s on Waterloo Street. Instead, he was buried at St. Andrew’s Old Church. However, either a road or a building is now above him and the whereabouts of his tombstone is unknown.

At midday on Easter Sunday, a public walk will be taking place from the Peace Statue to raise funds for new toilets followed by a quiz in the Iron Duke pub opposite at 7:00pm – the more, the merrier.


Astoria

Two great theatres were built locally in 1933 – the Astoria on Gloucester Place in Brighton and the Granada on Portland Road in Hove. In parallel twists of fate, both closed during the 1970s and became bingo halls and both now sit derelict.

Many believed that the future of the Astoria was assured when it was bought by members of the Stomp percussion group in 2001 for £1 million. Their plans to reopen it as a venue did not come to fruition, which led to it being snapped up by local businessman, Mike Holland, for £2.2 million last year. It currently doesn’t look too inviting though. The main Art Deco entrance is boarded up, as are the various empty shops running across the building’s front.

The Astoria was built by Edward A. Stone in reconstituted stone and was opened on 21st December 1933 by the Member of Parliament for Brighton, Sir Alfred Cooper Rawson. A large audience watched The Private Life of Henry VIII and then Santa’s Workshop! The 1,823 seat auditorium, which I saw on my tour of the building, really is massive. When I saw it though, there were holes in the floor and roof with just a torch to light the way. The layout is certainly complicated – with many different staircases, various foyers and rooms of all shapes and sizes tucked away in the rafters. It’ll take a lot to bring the best out of this Grade II Listed masterpiece but it must be done.

The greatest cinema to have been built in Brighton was the Regent. The 3,000 seater was built on the corner of Queen’s Road and North Road in 1921 at a cost of over £400,000 and should never have been destroyed. Boots now occupies the substantial site. The next giant cinema was the Savoy on East Street. It opened in 1930 at a cost of £200,000 and survives today as a casino and several bars. Many other once great cinemas weren’t so lucky.

Rooms on the front of the Astoria that were once used for accommodation, offices and dance classes, could easily be converted into flats. The auditorium, however, is a completely different story and the building wouldn’t be what it is without it. However, Mike Holland has found sensible and sensitive ways in the past on other projects such as Stanmer House and will, I am sure, do so again on this one.