Archive for February, 2009

Park Gate

It’s easy to be oblivious to the pleasant subtleties of the built environment around us.

As a resident of a city blessed with some of the country’s finest Regency compositions, I once completely overlooked our great Art Deco buildings. 4 Grand Avenue, Courtenay Gate and Furze Croft meant nothing to me. At the time, Embassy Court was a wreck and much of the rest fairly inconspicuous. The subtlety of the Art Deco period was simply lost on me. Again, whilst studying Electrical Engineering at Sussex, Cosworths and Ducatis took precedence over my delightful surroundings. I just saw red brick on campus; not Sir Basil Spence’s celebrated masterpiece.

At a glance, the two four-storey blocks of Park Gate, built in 1957-60, are all concrete and hanging tiles just as Sussex University was mounds of fired clay. Despite Park Gate’s terrazzo floors, quirky panes of coloured glass and a landscaped courtyard, I really found it hard to open my mind to the idea that a 1960s building might be special. It wasn’t until Conran & Partners Director Paul Zara told me a little about the building’s illustrious history that I really saw the light (and lots of it).

I don’t generally get excited about room sizes and windows (standing outside, why would I?) but, in the case of Park Gate, the generously-proportioned strip-windowed rooms are an unexpected bonus – an aesthetic success externally, a luminary success internally. The Alliance Building Society agent Henry Cushman, working with Span (an extremely admirable developer), was the man behind the scheme. Improving this structurally-sound subtle classic will be about details – the systematic repair of broken and missing features. It’ll be worth it though. Park Gate is just one of a handful of 1960s buildings in Brighton & Hove worthy of retention.

Conran & Partners is currently advising Park Gate residents on upgrading the lifts; sensitively satisfying fire regulations; enhancing the gardens; improving thermal performance; and repairing the concrete fabric and glazed roof lanterns. Bearing in mind that Zara oversaw Embassy Court’s successful restoration, I expect great results. He has fallen in love with Park Gate to such a degree that he has actually bought one of the scheme’s 47 flats.

By all means let’s demolish Sussex Heights, the Kingswest building and the rest of the worst of the 1960s but celebrate, preserve and enhance the best of the period.

See www.conranandpartners.com for more on the firm’s projects.


Tower Bridge

An American definitely did buy London Bridge in 1968 but it’s certainly not true, contrary to popular belief, that he thought that he was buying Tower Bridge. The latter may well be London’s most famous but it actually takes its name from the neighbouring Tower of London.

I came to see various behind-the-scenes areas of Tower Bridge by acting as an ‘assistant’ to a friend who is keen to hire a section out for filming. A public exhibition describes the creation of the ‘Special Bridge or Subway Committee’ in 1876 to connect the gridlocked roads on the banks to the east of London Bridge whilst still allowing ships to pass. A design by the City Architect, Horace Jones, and his engineer, John Wolfe Barry, was picked in 1884 but Jones died shortly afterwards.

Tower Bridge was built in 1886-94 and cost £1,184,000 which is, according to my online Victorian calculator, £65,736,000 today! George D. Stevenson took over the project from Jones and decided to use Cornish granite and Portland stone over the steel frame instead of brick. The two 65m towers and 61m walkways allowed pedestrians to cross when ships passed. Despite weighing over 1,000 tons each, the bascules (counter-balanced moving sections) rising so quickly to 83˚ was quite a spectacle so many chose to watch and wait over taking the steps. To this day, hydraulic power is used but with oil and electricity rather than steam.

Now Grade I Listed, the castle-like Victorian Gothic structure (along with London, Blackfriars, Southwark, and the Millennium Bridge) is owned by a charitable trust, Bridge House Estates, of which the City of London Corporation is sole trustee. The City Bridge Trust makes grants on behalf of Bridge House to benefit the inhabitants of Greater London. A £4 million renovation is underway which will see Tower Bridge’s paint returned to its original colours – blue and white.

I’d like to draw an aesthetic parallel between Tower Bridge and a not too dissimilar Brighton structure of the same period – the Clock Tower at the foot of Queen’s Road. According to H. H. Statham, Tower Bridge ‘represents the vice of tawdriness and pretentiousness, and of falsification of the actual facts of the structure’. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the Clock Tower as ‘worthless’. Neither is architecturally pure but both work.

Tower Bridge may well be on shaky ground architecturally but as a national landmark, its foundations are solid.


Dome Art Deco Interior

The Saltdean Lido, the old Ocean Hotel, Embassy Court, the old Savoy at the bottom of East Street and even what is now Primark on Western Road may all spring to mind when thinking of Art Deco in Brighton. It’s very easy to forget though what is perhaps our most dramatic local example.

Bearing in mind the lavishness of the Dome’s Moorish hallways, added by Philip Lockwood when he converted the Prince Regent’s old stables into a concert hall in 1867, it’s hard to imagine that the auditorium itself was ever less than spectacular. Indeed, its 30ft high by 16ft wide chandelier is legendary. But that did not stop refurbishment taking place in the Art Deco style by Robert Atkinson in 1934-5.

The £50,000 project saw a reduction in capacity from 2,500 to 2,100 despite a new balcony being added. An interior ceiling was constructed which would have stopped light coming in which previously entered through glass in the domed roof. I didn’t appreciate this until I was shown the void between the two where it’s still possible to see ornate paintwork and the old openings. Despite the undeniable gloriousness of the auditorium now (its deep oranges and pinks certainly do provide much compensation), I can’t help but feel that the removal of Lockwood’s 1867 interior was tragic.

Up against Olivia Newton-John who represented the UK, the Dome saw Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974. It was where Pink Floyd first performed The Dark Side of the Moon. It has been host to Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Smiths Nina Simone and BB King. However, for many years, it was clear that refurbishment was necessary. Funding from the Arts Council, Brighton & Hove City Council and many other sources including local individuals made this possible.

The Dome reopened in 2002 after a £22 million refurbishment transformed the complex in many ways, especially technologically. An advanced Carmen audio system uses carefully-placed microphones and speakers to put the right sounds in the right places. Acoustic panels on the back walls, perfectly matching the rest of the auditorium, are adjusted for different performances. Even the centre of the ceiling was removed to increases the auditorium’s volume; all in pursuit of that perfect sound.

The third in this series of four pieces on the Grade I Listed Dome and its surroundings will be the Corn Exchange and Pavilion Theatre.


97 New Church Road

As I often walk along New Church Road to my mum’s, I’ve gotten to know most of the houses pretty well. One nicely-proportioned detached property, seemingly stone-clad, always struck me as being particularly ripe for transformation.

Much to my pleasure, several quality elements were added within a relatively short space of time including a slate roof, exterior cedar panelling (orange fading to a roof-matching grey), galvanised steel drainpipes and a smooth render coat on top of the building’s structural concrete block wall (not stone-cladding after all). Shortly afterwards, the twin bays which made up most of the façade were ripped off entirely.

Barry and Fiona Foley have owned 97 New Church Road, a four bedroom 1930s detached house, for around 15 years but it wasn’t until mid-2007 when they teamed up with Martin Swatton (www.martinswatton.com), an award-winning graphic designer, that its true potential came to light. I had seen Martin’s own house on Channel 5’s I Own Britain’s Best Home and in several national papers. A glazed extension on the back of the Foleys’ home overlooking a soon to be remodelled garden is certainly breath-taking and its cleverly-designed ceiling with recessed lighting may well be my favourite feature (just ahead of the locally-produced tulip wood and glass interior doors).

There is no doubt that 97 New Church Road does not match its neighbours. In an area where there is a high architectural style in place, Brunswick Town for example, it would be entirely inappropriate. However, given its setting amongst an array of inconspicuous buildings, it’s right that it stands out. Such buildings in this context add drama. Are there many other examples around the City? The Lanterns are a striking (but strangely identical) pair of houses on Tongdean Avenue and 5 Dyke Road Avenue, a bungalow conversion, is a beautiful gadget-packed eco-house. Thankfully, there are more.

Much of New Church Road was built between the late Victorian period and the 1930s with Brooker Hall (now the Hove Museum) and Aldrington House as two great examples. A modern building with a pleasing exterior, hopefully a future column topic, is tucked away behind a large building near Richardson Road but you have to really look to find it.

Martin thinks that the project will be completed in about a month but then the original plan was simply to update the hallway so who knows what might change? Whatever happens, it’ll be dramatic.