Archive for March, 2009

Komedia

At the time of writing, I remain confident that a solution will be found but it will be painful. A great Brighton institution is under threat and only through tact and understanding will it survive.

The North Laine began as one of five open arable fields in Brighton (the others were West, Hilly, Little and East Laines). It was developed in sections and Gardner Street was laid out in the early 1800s by John Furner on the site of his market garden. “Now spoilt by the oppressive Jubilee Shopping Hall, formerly Tesco,” wrote Timothy Carder in his Encyclopaedia of Brighton in 1990. He was referring to the building now occupied by the Komedia!

Carder did have a point. In its previous guise as a supermarket, the building would have been remarkably ugly. It certainly now stands out – it doesn’t match its neighbours and is covered with brightly-lit ‘Komedia’ signs. Numbered 44-47 Gardner Street, it would be safe to assume that the three storey (plus basement) structure replaced four 19th century buildings that were built in a similar style to the rest of the area. Its wide corrugated façade and canopy are not features common to the North Laine but are quirky nevertheless. I do recall it as a Snooper’s Paradise-style flea market selling clothes, records and even food at a café. It was a fun place to rummage but, ultimately, underutilised.

The Komedia’s work needs no introduction as pretty much every famous comedian has performed there. It was founded by Colin Granger, Marina Kobler and David Lavender and started out in 1994 in the old billiards hall on Manchester Street in Kemp Town (later the Joogleberry Playhouse, today Latest MusicBar). Expansion was rapid and the logical move to Gardner Street took place in 1998. In 2006/7, the piece of land on Regent Street behind was purchased. Amongst other things, this allowed the upstairs to become an adaptable performance space with a standing capacity of 500. The Komedia brand has spread too and a second venue was opened in Bath in November last year.

The details are unimportant but the Komedia’s recent problems ultimately boil down to the withdrawal of Arts Council funding. Debts have accrued and finance is currently difficult to obtain. Such goodwill exists  though towards this local success story. I am sure that everybody, creditors included, will do all that they can to help at this difficult time.


Sackville Trading Estate

With the i360, King Alfred, Marina, Black Rock, Brighton Centre and Preston Barracks projects stalling, it would be easy to assume that every major developer has downed tools and gone home.

A recent flurry of planning activity including the Park House and old Medina Baths applications shows that the big boys have by no means given up. Unfortunately, these two in particular were appalling. A new application from Parkridge Developments though for the underused Sackville Trading Estate site is surprisingly good.

Parkridge, in junction with LaSalle Investment Management, applied last year to build 180 flats, 23,670ft² of office space and a supermarket on what is now the Sackville Trading Estate. Having been turned down for a variety of reasons, it is now back for reconsideration.

The utilitarian units on the Sackville site presently were constructed in the 1980s by James Longley & Co. Tenants today include Halfords and Focus. Before its current use, the site was the British Rail Goods Yard which included a Corall’s coal depot and a shed for ripening bananas. Brighton Station’s equivalent site sat derelict for years and has only recently been turned into, amongst other things, several blocks of flats, a hotel and a language school. Building on such sites at a time when we should be switching from roads to rail does seem short-sighted but the demand for housing is undeniably large.

Parkridge’s soon to be submitted second application has been met with an overwhelmingly positive reaction. “Sackville Place” includes less flats (now 92), more office space (now 60,000ft²) and the obligatory supermarket (hopefully Waitrose). The architects are Ian Robinson and Nick Troullides at Mountford Pigott, a Surrey-based practice. The proposal is made up of a series of large multi-use blocks with an underground car park around a spacious courtyard with a café in the middle. It probably has some good eco-stats too. My two real criticisms are that that it doesn’t include the demolition of more of the surrounding buildings and that there is no direct access into Hove Station. Both were investigated though.

Parkridge’s designs now have real personality. The scattered balconies and white facades remind me of the cliff-face homes of various sea-faring birds – quite appropriate given its location. Sackville Place won’t match the nearby red-brick Victorian terraces but it does have the potential to define the character of the buildings which will inevitably replace other underused warehouses in the vicinity.


Park House

An opportunity to restore an Edwardian gem and create a super new building on a landmark site between two parks presenting itself should be a cause for celebration. Instead, the gem faces demolition so that more dull flats can be built.

Park House, situated between Hove Park and Hove Recreation Ground, was built as a substantial detached residence. Today it sits derelict; not used since the previous occupant, Bellerbys College, relocated to Brighton Station some time back. A series of additional connected featureless blocks rudely interrupts the view over Hove Park. The site is still very green though and various trees, including some delightful yuccas, demonstrate what could be. Goldstone Crescent and the Old Shoreham Road to the west and south respectively may well be busy but a third road to the east, Hove Park Gardens, is a mysterious haven of wildlife.

I write having heard that our councillors have just turned down Hyde Martlet’s application to replace Park House with a solid five-storey block of 72 flats – and rightly so. It was one of those designs where strange angles and colours have been used to disguise a dearth of real detail. I strongly believe in the maintenance of an area’s character so naturally find it hard to support any proposal calling for flats within the Old Shoreham Road / Goldstone Crescent / King George VI Avenue / Dyke Road quadrant. Several examples already exist and each is completely out of character with its neighbours. This is not the way to create communities.

I first heard that Bellerbys had plans to move to new premises some years back when I worked for the surveying firm that was managing the then derelict site by Brighton Station. I actually manned the car park there for two hours before work each day (and was paid more than my daily wage for my trouble!). Bellerbys really is a local success story and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. With over 60 classrooms and around 400 bedrooms, its new base really is astounding.

If money was no object, I probably would demolish the lot and build a great house with a belvedere on the top tall enough to see the sea and the entirety of the parks. I would plant a few more yuccas. Under no circumstances though would I advocate the replacement of Park House with the 2000s equivalent of the worst of the 1960s.


Corn Exchange and Pavilion Theatre

The Dome itself normally gets all of the attention so this week I’m concentrating on two of its slightly less well-known neighbours – the Corn Exchange and Pavilion Theatre.

The Dome and Corn Exchange were built in 1803-8 as the Prince’s Stables and Riding House respectively. Sold to the people of Brighton by Queen Victoria in 1850, the Corn Exchange served as cavalry barracks from 1856-64. Its gravel floor was replaced with wood and lighting was added in 1867 but, otherwise, little was changed. William Porden took inspiration from the Corn Market in Paris when he designed the complex, which is why it’s fitting that the Brighton Corn Market was actually transferred there from the King & Queen Inn (a previous incarnation of today’s mock-Tudor extravaganza) in 1868.

The vast interior of the Grade I Listed Corn Exchange measures 178ft by 58ft with a truly impressive 34ft high unsupported arched ceiling. Porden actually struggled to find suitably large timber causing delays to the job! During the First World War, it became a military hospital and, afterwards, an exhibition and function room (as it is today). 1934 is the year which saw the Dome gain its famous Art Deco interior and there were alterations made by Robert Atkinson at the Corn Exchange too – the royal box was removed; the interior was made a single room again; and new windows were added looking out onto Church Street.

Around the corner on New Road but also connected behind the scenes is the 250 seat Grade II Listed Pavilion Theatre. It was designed by Atkinson and built as supper rooms for the Corn Exchange. It stands on a site previously occupied by the Dome Cottage and Mrs Fitzherbert’s stables. Despite the interior being pretty featureless, it works well as a cosy performance space for smaller audiences.

The Corn Exchange shares an imposing yellow brick Indian-style façade on Church Street with the Dome. Its distinctive entrance was added as part of the 1934 works and features a depiction by James Woodford of Ceres, the goddess of corn, above a canopy. Although less ostentatious, the Pavilion Theatre’s fortress-like frontage on New Road stands out amongst its neighbours without being obtrusive. I see it as being just as effective as the rest of the estate.

The last column of the series will be the one that I’ve been looking forward to writing most – “The Dome Behind the Scenes”.


Kingsway Court

As the occupant of the seafront spot between Adelaide Mansions and what is now King’s House, Kingsway Court has a lot to live up to for the previous set of buildings on the site was rather special.

Kingsway Court is one of the many 1960s blocks that I consider ugly. It certainly isn’t characterless but it doesn’t warm the heart like the Regency compositions nearby. A terrace of seven townhouses numbered 1-7 Queens Gardens originally occupied the site which became the Kingsway Hotel in the 1930s. No. 7 was occupied by the Sassoon family and King Edward VII was a visitor. The rest of Queen’s Gardens, seven more townhouses, are now King’s House, the administrative headquarters of Brighton & Hove City Council.

The Regency Society’s James Gray Collection (www.regencysociety-jamesgray.com) includes a wonderful photo of the Kingsway Hotel with an obvious clue as to why it was demolished in 1960 – a great chunk of it was damaged by a World War II bomb! “Magnificently equipped flats in one of the finest positions on the South Coast fitted with every possible amenity,” states the original Kingsway Court sales brochure. The balconies’ teak handrails, cocktail bars and 24 hour porter service are detailed. The Bali Brasserie now occupies part of the ground floor and, as was shown to me by its charismatic owner “TC”, the original giant sweeping bar remains intact.

The early 1990s saw Kingsway Court as the subject of a fierce legal battle. The freeholder was the pension fund of Mars (the chocolate people) and leaseholders, including the passionate Shula Rich, disputed a £2 million service charge bill. The leaseholders lost that battle but ended up winning the war by buying the building (as Kingsway Court Freeholders Ltd) in 1996. Shula today chairs the Brighton Hove & District Leaseholders Association (www.leaseadvice.org).

Kingsway Court may not complement its surroundings but residents don’t seem too fussed. It’s interesting how 60s developments either work really well or totally fail. High specification developments with older residents (who seem to understand better the value of community) appear to work socially. It’s a similar case at Sussex Heights and Bedford Towers. These buildings may not be much to look at but residents care for, dine with, and even sing karaoke with (Bali Brasserie on Sundays!) eachother.

“Flats available from £3,250,” states the sales brochure. Now that’s one part of the 1960s that I like the sound of.