Archive for June, 2009

Earthships

“The dream is this: envisage a building that is, without exaggeration, a passport to freedom, where it is not necessary to work to pay utility bills, because there are none.”

Earthship Brighton certainly does satisfy the dream as set out in Earthships – Building a zero carbon future for homes by Mischa Hewitt and Kevin Tefler. And anybody who has visited this thrilling eco-building in Stanmer Park will testify as such. For those not in the know, Earthships might be defined as autonomous tyre and glass eco-structures but all sorts of definitions exist. Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs firmly supports the concept which can, ultimately, be traced back to the first which was built by Michael Renolds in New Mexico 30 years ago. Indeed, McCloud himself has provided a compelling foreword to the book (published in 2007 by HIS BRE Press).

I met Mischa and his colleague, Bryn Thomas, when I wrote a piece on Earthship Brighton some time back. Each was heavily involved with the complicated administration of the project and also helped out the army of volunteers with some of the actual building work. A complicated web of planet-friendly organisations has been involved from the outset, spear-headed by, principally, the Low Carbon Trust and Brighton Permaculture Trust.

The purpose of my latest visit to Earthship Brighton was to attend part of a course on building Earthships. The idea is that it should be possible for fairly normal people to build their own versions which makes it all the more disappointing that only three have so far been built in the UK. I imagine that the idea would be far more appealing if the planning system was more engaging and land cheaper. I met a number of people on the course though who hope to start their own soon and I wish them the best of luck.

Despite our obvious shared interest in buildings, I thoroughly enjoy speaking with Mischa about politics and society generally. Earthships are more than just homes – they represent a vision for the future. Those involved are pioneers; the modern equivalents of Eugenius Birch and Magnus Volk.

Earthships (the book) highlights how often journalists use spacecraft analogies in their pieces so there will be none of that today. Instead, I will ask anybody who is remotely interested in the idea to boldly go to www.lowcarbon.co.uk and seek out the sections on tours, courses and Mischa’s book.


8 Royal Crescent

When it comes to the grand compositions of Brighton & Hove, it is clearly the case that few buildings remain as they were originally intended – as houses.

8 Royal Crescent, one of the City’s greatest remaining houses, is for sale. To reach its grand front door, one must first pass the Crescent’s large yellow brick pillars. Imposing railings to the sides and large stone slabs on the ground suggest grandeur beyond. Each building would originally have had its stone steps on view but some are now tiled. The front doors, some with semi-circular fanlights above, are a bit of a mix and come with a variety of pediments. Grand brass fittings are, however, a common feature.

Royal Crescent, now Grade II* Listed, was commissioned by a West Indian speculator, J. B. Otto, and built between 1798 and 1807 as Brighton’s first composition: a series of 14 bay-fronted timber-framed buildings with five storeys including basements. The parapet is raised above Nos. 7 to 10 (but not above the rest strangely) and ‘Royal Crescent’ is painted above Nos. 7 and 8. The man who was first responsible for painting the two words met a nasty end after leaning back a little too far to admire his work.

The black mathematical tiles which adorn the fronts of the buildings are striking. Such tiles – imagine clever overlapping roof tiles, not bathroom tiles – are not uncommon in Sussex and may also be seen on Patcham Place. The window panes are a variety of sizes but would have once all been small as large panes weren’t in common use until after the 1850s. Interestingly, No. 14 has a bow-front, not a canted bay like the others, and it has been theorised that they were once all like that. No. 1 is missing its bonnet canopy.

Phil from Mishon Mackay kindly showed me around No. 8, the home of the Campbell family, where a huge amount of effort has been put into transforming it from several flats into a unified residence worthy of the name Royal. There are too many impressive features to list here but a dumb-waiter disguised as a bookcase is certainly best.

It’s not until one looks out over Royal Crescent’s communal gardens towards the sea that the composition can be truly appreciated. It’s no wonder that Lord Olivier, that king of the stage and screen, chose Nos. 4 and 5 as his home.


St Peter’s Church

“Keep clear! Risk of falling masonry”

St. Peter’s may not be as elegant as St. Michael’s, as historic as St. Nicholas’s or as lofty as St. Bartholomew’s yet it is seen as by residents and visitors alike as Brighton’s flagship ecclesiastical structure. Though a great deal of goodwill exists towards the building, it has been underutilised for a number of years.

St. Peter’s was built at what was once the town entrance but is today the city centre. Its island location adds grandeur but the flip-side is inaccessibility which can only be solved by the unification of the Valley Gardens. With public finances already at breaking point, now certainly isn’t an appropriate time for such a project.

St. Peter’s was designed by Charles Barry (later Sir Charles) in the Late Gothic style and built from 1824-8. During the same period, Barry proved his versatility by building both the Sussex County Hospital and St. Andrew’s Church (on Waterloo Street in Hove) in the Classical style. He went on to build the Houses of Parliament. The north end of Barry’s original Portland stone building was removed in 1898 so that it could be enlarged in a different style using a contrasting Sussex sandstone. One half of the building is a dirty grey; the other is a dirty beige.

Some want to see St. Peter’s made a cathedral but it doesn’t even have its own parish currently, let alone its own diocese. A cathedral doesn’t always make a city and not all cities have cathedrals but Brighton would certainly benefit if it did have one. Guildford, for example, has a cathedral but isn’t a city, and Leeds is a city without its own cathedral. City status is purely an honour granted by the Sovereign.

The likelihood of St. Peter’s becoming a cathedral and Brighton a diocese in its own right is unrealistic but there may be a compromise. In the case of Leeds, this was resolved by changing the name of the diocese in which it is situated – hence the Diocese of Ripon became the Diocese of Ripon & Leeds. In the case of Brighton, the Diocese of Chichester would become the Diocese of Chichester & Brighton. Any change would have huge administrative consequences though.

Holy Trinity Brompton wants to bring its Alpha Course to St. Peter’s which would lead to its own parish being formed – the first step towards proper recognition perhaps?


Claremont

Few of Hove’s large detached Victorian houses remain as single units which made it all the more pleasing to have a good look around a virtually unspoilt example.

13 Second Avenue, or ‘Claremont’ to give the double-fronted house its name as engraved on plaques on both entrance pillars, was built as a private residence, probably during the 1870s by the famous builder William Willett. In the mid-1920s, it became the Claremont Preparatory School and then a hotel, today called The Claremont. It is now managed by the charismatic Dan Maynard and owned by Vicki Banks and Stuart Hill whose involvement with the business began  two and a half years ago.

Claremont and No. 12 next door were built in an identical style using the characteristic yellow brick of the West Brighton Estate (which became part of Hove), once owned by the immensely wealthy Stanford family. Claremont has a flat-topped slate roof with all five of its original chimneys still intact. At basement level, the stucco covering the bricks has been rusticated to give the appearance of stone block construction. An interesting feature of the building is its number of floors. A clever half-landing arrangement gives the building four storeys in some places and five storeys in others all under the same roof. There is also a large attic room.

Grand steps with black and white geometric tiles lead up to a thick front door with more geometric tiles beyond on the hallway floor. The ground floor has three large reception rooms of which two have marble fireplaces. Gas pipes and taps, once serving fires and lamps presumably, are scattered throughout the building. Baths, like those in many other buildings in the area, once had a third tap – for saltwater – which was confirmed by a letter that I read from a former pupil of the Claremont Preparatory School.

A flight of York stone steps leads down to the rear garden which is a lawned and pebbled oasis surrounded by a tall rendered wall. Around the edges, flora includes clematis, honeysuckle and roses. Inanimate decorations include a fireplace, stained glass and various statues.

Many have recently seen The Claremont in its capacity as one of the “Artists Open Houses” (their missing apostrophe, not mine). However, it houses a permanent revolving exhibition so it’s never too late to pop by. For more details on this modern survivor of a bygone era, see www.theclaremont.eu.