Archive for May, 2008

Grand Designs Live

Apparently, you should never meet your heroes. It’s often said that doing so can only end in disappointment.

Kevin McCloud is Grand Designs. As writer and presenter of the inspirational Channel 4 programme, he really has taken the architectural documentary to another level. But what is the man really like? His own home is certainly very different to those featured – he lives in a hardly-touched five hundred year old farmhouse. His opinions are strong and he doesn’t shy away from voicing them – in several different languages. I often think to myself, when assessing a new building, "Would it pass the McCloud test?" This is why I set out to meet him at the Grand Designs Live exhibition at ExCeL in London.

The majority of opposition to new development is down to cautiousness as a direct result of past planning mistakes, many of which are still being made. If as much effort was put into new buildings locally as what goes into those featured on Grand Designs, we would all be looking forward to the next project; not dreading it. The programme shows how it should be done by promoting best practice. New buildings should use the best available materials; they should be environmentally friendly; they should understand their surroundings; and, most importantly, they should push the boundaries of design.

I often use the Jubilee Library as a good example of a decent local new building. There are few others. Only the Dorset Gardens Methodist Church off St. James’s Street and, perhaps, the Van Alen Building spring to mind as being outstanding. However, it’s fun comparing the best of what we’ve got – new and old – with what is being built on Grand Designs. Unfortunately, there was little about architecture at the Grand Designs Live exhibition. It was more about taps and tables than McCloud and his strict approach to building design. If I had wanted wardrobes and worktops, I would have gone to the Ideal Homes Show. I also didn’t understand the thinking behind Janet Street-Porter’s presence; especially her large role in the proceedings. The average Grand Designs fan does not find Street-Porter’s shouting appealing. Besides, breathtaking buildings speak for themselves.

As it goes, I did meet Kevin McCloud but he was extremely busy due to his strict filming schedule. Meeting your heroes can be a good thing; just don’t do it in the presence of their pushy media advisers.

Newhaven Fort

Following previous columns stemming from trips out and about with the Godfather, the military theme continues with a visit to the largest work of defence ever constructed in Sussex.

Two great men can be credited with the building of Newhaven Fort – Lord Palmerston (the then Prime Minister) and Lieutenant John Charles Ardagh. Following the Royal Commission of 1860, Palmerston, with support from Queen Victoria, put into action a strong defence policy against the French, resulting in a vast scheme of construction along the south coast and Thames Estuary. These works, the largest fortification project ever undertaken in this country during peacetime, became known as "Palmerston’s Folly". But, Newhaven Fort itself was designed by Lieutenant Ardagh who was just 22 years old at the time.

Ardagh’s work began on the Fort in 1862 and it should be pointed out that his beautiful drawings went far beyond what was required for such a project. 250 men, many horses and three steam engines began the mammoth task in 1864 and completed it in 1871. Shingle from below the cliffs was hoisted up to make the concrete, and clay from nearby was used to make most of the Fort’s six million bricks. There are also many tunnels including one long and dark staircase (my favourite bit!) that stretches down to where guns once guarded the beach.

When Newhaven Fort was bought by the Town Council in 1962, its condition was excellent but a greedy developer soon changed that by attempting to turn it into a holiday camp. Various structures were demolished; the tunnels were filled in; and poor quality houses were built by the main entrance. The project failed abysmally. In 1979, the Fort was declared a Scheduled Ancient Monument; one of the reasons being that it was the first military structure where concrete was used. Soon afterwards, two sympathetic developers began transforming it into a leisure centre but sadly, the venture failed. Lewes District Council then took on the project and the rest is history.

Due to Ardagh’s ingenuity in embracing the natural contours of the land, Newhaven Fort is not as visible as it could be – a victim of its own success! Extra publicity should, therefore, be afforded to combined tours and workshop sessions taking place on 28th and 31st May in conjunction with Architecture 08 (organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects). See or call 01273 517622 for details.

Mike Robins’ Historical Central Brighton

I first met Mike Robins, one of Brighton & Hove’s most colourful and well-known characters, at St. Andrew’s Church on Waterloo Street where he worked tirelessly as Custodian to transform the forgotten treasure. However, I didn’t realise that he was a tour guide too until I bumped into him working one day, having spotted his trademark Russian hat from afar. Ever since, I’ve been keen to put my knowledge to the test by going on one of the tours myself. When Mike offered me a preview of one of his Brighton Fringe Festival specials, I nearly bit his hat off.

The Historic Central Brighton Tour kicks off from St. Nicholas’ Church, Brighton’s oldest surviving building. Mike began with a tale of his experiences of the actress Dame Flora Robson, who lived on Wykeham Terrace for some years, and how she gave him ‘spangles’ as a child. We then weaved our way up to the Grade I Listed St. Michael’s and were told all about why it has the nickname the ‘Two Sisters Church’. On the way, Mike showed us the grave of his relative, Ebenezer Robins. So much was pointed out that one might normally miss such as the spaniels on the door of the Clifton Hill Coach House, the beautiful lime trees on Clifton Road and the laurel wreathes on Montpelier Crescent

Some of Brighton’s best bits may be found in the Montpelier & Clifton Hill Conservation Area such as St. Michael’s Church, Clifton Terrace and Powis Square along with Montpelier Villas, Crescent and Terrace. But, due to much of it being situated between Dyke Road, Western Road and Montpelier Road, many architectural gems are missed by most people. Mike adds a whole new dimension to this area and its surroundings with his well-woven story filled with facts, energy, humour and mystery.

So, did I learn anything new (other than the fact that walking around hilly Brighton for an hour and a bit can be quite a tiring experience!)? Yes, but I’m not going to say what – I’ve given away lots already. The tours will be running until 31st May so be sure to book yourself a place soon by calling Mike on 01273 773052.

If you don’t get to meet Mike on a tour, he’s easy to spot around town – there’s the hat, of course, but also the massive picture of him on the side of a bus!

Gardner Arts Centre

The unexpected closure of the Gardner Arts Centre at the University of Sussex just over one year ago was well-documented at the time but little has been announced since.

I first visited the Gardner with my grandmother over fifteen years ago, long before I even thought about studying at Sussex. Sadly for me, I never went there during my time as a student even though films were often shown there during the evenings. There was much more there than cheap cinema though. The Gardner’s programme of contemporary theatre and dance along with its exhibitions of modern visual art were directed very much in the spirit of Brighton and were, ultimately, well respected.

The University of Sussex was the first of a wave of seven universities that were founded during the 1960s around the country. It received its Royal Charter in 1961 and opened near Preston Park in temporary accommodation with just 52 students. The Gardner Arts Centre opened in 1969 following donations; including one from the late Dr Lyddon Gardner, a benefactor of the University in its earliest days and former Chairman and MD of Yardley, the royal perfumers and cosmetics giant. It consists of various circular and segmented sections, like a small brick Guggenheim Museum, and has a 480 seat purpose built theatre, a visual art gallery and studio space. It received its Grade II* Listed status in 1993.

The Gardner faced unexpected closure for two reasons; not only was it discovered that the building itself required massive investment but it was also announced that funding was to be stopped by Brighton & Hove City Council. It was thought that at least £6 million would be required to replace wiring & plumbing, fix the leaking roof, install disabled access and meet various ‘health and safety’ requirements. Although the University of Sussex owns the building, the Gardner’s operators, Gardner Arts Centre Ltd, would have been responsible for the work.

I first started writing this piece when I heard that the Gardner Arts Centre was set to close but I decided to hold off for what I thought would be a month or two so that I could announce some good news. Sadly that moment never arrived. Although nothing concrete has yet been announced for the Gardner, the building is very much part of the long-term strategic development of the University, especially in teaching and research work in the performance arts.