Archive for May, 2009

Duke of York’s

“Bring her to the Duke’s – it’s fit for a Duchess” was the motto. And it’s easy to see why.

Situated on one of Brighton’s busiest junctions with a dancer’s legs protruding from its roof, the Duke of York’s is hardly inconspicuous. It was designed by the theatre architect C. E. Clayton in an Edwardian baroque-style and its proprietor was a former actress, Mrs Violet Melnotte-Wyatt. She also leased a Duke of York’s in London; hence the name. It cost £3,000 and opened in September 1910 making 2010 its 100th birthday. A letter to the Duke from the Queen perhaps?

The stucco façade features rusticated blocks, a clock, an ached colonnade with a balcony, and a variety of windows. Unfortunately, its twin domes and flagpoles were removed in the 1950s. There was once a box office window between the two sets of entrance doors but today tickets are purchased from a booth on the right that was once a sweetshop. A florist was once on the left where an access ramp is now situated.

Black and white geometric tiles adorn the floor of the foyer from which steps once led straight into the auditorium. The foyer was enlarged, however, by shrinking the auditorium. Seats were taken from the auditorium upstairs too to make a bar with access to the balcony outside. Steps lead up to the projection room which has two projectors – a 35mm Westar from the 1950s and a modern digital unit. A small window gives operators a view of the screen over the heads of the members of the transfixed audience.

The capacity of the Duke of York’s is now 278 but originally it was 800. Bearing in mind the size of the 3,000 seat Regent which once occupied the Boots site on North Street / Queen’s Road, modern cinemas are so much smaller than their early counterparts.

The site of the Duke of York’s and adjoining Fire Station was once home to a large brewery. Indeed, parts of the brewery’s wall were incorporated into the cinema’s structure. A new slate roof was installed last year. The legs, as many ask, came from an Oxford cinema called Not the Moulin Rouge.

East Sussex Fire & Rescue has expressed a desire to dispose of the Fire Station and move to new premises elsewhere with the Duke of York’s expressing keen interest. This is a move that I would support wholeheartedly.

Great Westminster Clock

All through this hour
Lord be my Guide
That by Thy Power
No foot shall slide

The chimes of the planet’s most famous clock are set to the above verse from the aria I Know that My Redeemer Liveth in Handel’s Messiah. But ‘Big Ben’ is not the name of the clock (the Great Westminster Clock) or, indeed, its tower (the Clock Tower) but is actually the nickname of the Great Bell – the largest of the five bells. Weighing in at 13.76 tonnes, it wasn’t the original bell either. The first was a 16.3 tonne beast that cracked beyond repair during testing.

The purpose of this piece is to celebrate a birthday – a 150th birthday, in fact, for the Great Westminster Clock first chimed in 1859. Earlier buildings on the site were destroyed in a giant fire in 1834 which led to Barry and Pugin’s famous Gothic design for a new Palace being chosen by the Royal Commission soon afterwards. The clock was built from designs by the clockmaker Edward Dent which had been modified by a leading barrister and amateur horologist called Edmund Beckett Denison. His ‘double three-legged gravity escapement’ separated the pendulum from the interference of weather on the clock hands; one of the reasons behind its remarkable accuracy.

During my time working in the Houses of Parliament, I have taken the opportunity of climbing the Clock Tower’s 334 steps on several occasions on the official tours. Contrary to popular belief, the Clock Tower is not actually the tallest part of the building (it feels like it though when you’re walking); it is 96m tall so is just beaten by the Victoria Tower on the other end which stands at 98m. Quite amazingly, after having to be winched up the Clock Tower on its side, Big Ben actually cracked. It was turned a quarter and cuts were made to stop the crack spreading but the fact remains that the bell that is there today remains damaged.

Locally, we have several impressive clock towers including the Clock Tower at the foot of Queen’s Road in Brighton of 1888 along with Preston Park’s Clock Tower of 1891. Both are distinctive but neither compares to that which houses Big Ben. It’s obviously unfair to compare though.

The Great Westminster Clock began keeping time on 31st May 1859 so be sure to send a decent birthday card. See for more details.


Monaco, especially during Grand Prix season, evokes image of great wealth and glamour. Super yachts fill the harbour whilst Bentleys speed by with remarkable frequency. One might quite reasonably expect the architecture to be on an equal footing.

Given the right circumstances, it’s hard not to be impressed by Monaco. And by that I mean that I was initially impressed having been whisked by car from the airport straight into a swish apartment directly above the finish line of the GP circuit. The sun was shining brightly on those arranging the seating for the race alongside residents and visitors testing out their Ferraris and Lamborghinis on the track. It was quite an experience.

After a night in Monte Carlo, I headed out of Monaco to investigate more of the French Riviera. It wasn’t until I arrived at a kind friend’s house in La Garde-Freinet, not far from Saint-Tropez, that I made my mind up about Monaco. La Garde-Freinet is a mountain village with old buildings made from simple local materials such as stone, clay and wood. There is rust, the odd crack here and there, peeling paint, no right angles, but, much more importantly, there is charm and character in abundance,

Given Monaco’s delightful setting around a deep bay with surprisingly green mountains behind, it should have been easy to create a paradise. But something went horribly wrong along the way. From a distance, the buildings look old but they are mostly fakes with stick-on classical details. The rest is a hotchpotch of soulless post-war blocks with a shockingly high number of satellite dishes to boot. The one interesting modern structure that I saw was the subterranean Gare de Monaco which has various interesting elements. It’s nothing on Canary Wharf or Westminster stations though– and it was leaking in the rain.

I did return to Monaco on the last night of my trip and did try to see the best in the place. The Monte Carlo Casino of 1858 and the gardens above it are, it has to be said, quite something. But then I spotted below the seriously outdated set of hexagonal buildings beneath which Formula One cars speed on race day. The tunnel looks sleek on television but, up-close, it is a shocking mess.

One thing that emerged with remarkable clarity was the truth of the age old saying about money. It really is worlds away from taste.

Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital

Having already won the Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award last year, it’s no surprise that the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital is in the running for a prestigious RIBA award.

The Brighton Hospital for Sick Children was founded by Dr R. P. B. Taafe in 1868 and was originally based at 178 Western Road. Its famous – now disused – red-brick building on Dyke Road was opened by Princess Alexandra as the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Sick Children in 1881. There are so many good things about the building; from the great work that went on inside for so many years to the pleasure that it gives to local residents and passers-by. With inflexible internal spaces and high running costs, it inevitably became unsuitable for its intended purpose and a decision was taken to move the service to the Royal Sussex County Hospital site.

When Charles Barry (who was responsible for the Houses of Parliament) designed the Sussex County Hospital in 1825, the site was surrounded by an abundance of open land – quite unimaginable bearing in mind the constraints of the site today. Green land opposite, across Eastern Road, is now home to the Sussex Eye Hospital, the Outpatient Department and the Audrey Emerton Building. But, the biggest changes were made behind. The extensive north-eastern section of the site was built in stages and is now dominated by the ‘Alex’ and the hideous 16-storey Thomas Kemp Tower. Incidentally, the County became the Royal County after receiving official recognition from King Edward VII.

The winged extensions that were added to Barry’s structure were undoubtedly improvements due to the way in which they emphasise its symmetry and add to its presence. The Alex just shows up later additions around the site though and it’s a shame that a proper masterplan wasn’t put in place for the whole complex. An appropriate style would be that of the bubbly and colourful boat-like Alex.

The Alex was designed by BDP and completed in 2007 at a cost of £37 million. Both inside and out, the building lifts emotions, which is a massive part of its job, in fact. It’s airy, bright, clean and classy. I honestly don’t think that it could have been done any better.

BDP Director Benedict Zucchi was ultimately responsible for the project and will, I am sure, bring yet another award to the firm for his work on this most grown-up of children’s buildings.