Archive for September, 2009

Jersey

“Our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today,” said Winston Churchill in 1945 as the war in Europe ended. These enchanting islands still hold a special place in the hearts of so many residents and visitors alike.

Whilst charming, there’s a certain mystery surrounding the islands. Jersey and Guernsey are known as tax havens but of much greater interest, to me anyway, are Sark’s feudal system, Alderney’s puffins, Herm’s lack of cars and Brecqou’s elusive owners, the Barclay Brothers. I recently flew in for a short trip with a plan to squeeze in as much as possible, ‘island-hopping’ as it were. As it goes, we managed Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark.

My interest in buildings grew from a love of the subterranean, and the Channel Islands, having been occupied and fortified by the Germans during the Second World War, offer an abundance of tunnels to explore. The ‘Jersey War Tunnels’ are a network of long and gloomy passages through the volcanic rock which have been turned into a slick and engaging museum. The installation was built as a barracks for the Germans using slave labour and civilian prisoners. It became a hospital in 1944 but patients were never actually treated there.

Not far away, the Glass Church in Millbrook is a fascinating Art Deco building. Only a pair of smooth wooden doors with immensely thick clear glass inserts suggest an exciting interior. In fact, the inserts along with a huge number of other glass items within, were made by René Lalique, one of the world’s greatest ever glassmakers.

In terms of both area and population (45 square miles and 91,000 respectively), Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands yet its capital, St. Helier, has some appalling buildings. Brighton has its monsters – the Brighton Centre, the Kingswest Building, the Marina – but there appears to be a collective recognition locally that these were mistakes which damage the tourism industry which keeps our economy afloat. However, the building of rubbish in St. Helier’s historic heart continues without any realisation of the consequences. To the suits, it’s all about creating offices with an abundance of unbroken floor space.

With HM Treasury currently cracking down on tax havens, Jersey should be diversifying by working on its attractiveness as a destination for tourists. The islands aren’t just dear to Sir Winston and it’s heartbreaking to see St. Helier being treated with such disregard.


Brighton Sewer Tour

By now, the four days of Brighton & Hove Open Door should have passed with a great number of people seeing mysterious buildings and structures for the first time. This includes a lucky few who would have entered a thick door beneath the Palace Pier, only to re-emerge an hour or so afterwards from a manhole on the Old Steine.

The Brighton sewer tour has become a local institution. Of course, not all 300 miles are open for viewing but that’s fine by me. This story really begins in 1865 when around 44 miles of brick sewers ranging from 12” to 8ft in diameter were introduced to the town of Brighton.

The new system, skilfully based on gravitation, was designed to drain wastewater into the sea at three outfalls: one near the border with Hove, one near the Albion Hotel and one at Black Rock. These outcrops today make ideal spots from which to fish when the tide is right. At this stage, the system was intended for water but many buildings were connected to it illegally. This is unsurprising as sewage was still often drained into cesspools behind buildings and collected during the night.

It wasn’t long before public demand led to further construction – a main trunk sewer which intercepted the others. It runs parallel with the shore from Hove to an outfall at Portobello in Telscombe and forms the basis of what we have today. It was built in 1871-4 to the designs of Sir John Hawkshaw, again in brick, at a length of 7.25 miles with a diameter ranging from 5ft to 7ft. Stormwater overflows were constructed too at the Old Steine and at Black Rock.

Although the Victorian system is still remarkably effective, it is under so much more pressure now than it ever was. Also, sea pollution as a consequence of lack of capacity during storms is fortunately much less acceptable than in the past. This is why Southern Water built Europe’s largest stormwater storage tunnel deep beneath the seafront. It is 3 miles long with a diameter of 20ft. Whilst that is undoubtedly large, it very nearly filled during that awful wet period several years ago.

Tours have been running since the 1960s and take place between May and September. The cavernous spaces beneath the Palace Pier and Old Steine are surprisingly spectacular – and the smell really isn’t that bad.

See www.southernwater.co.uk for details.

 


Palladio

Andrea di Pietro della Gondola’s path to greatness really began during his time working for Gian Giorgio Trissino, a leading writer of the day. Trissino became his mentor and introduced him to the principles of classical architecture. He even bestowed upon him a nickname that would become famous the world over – ‘Palladio’ after Pallas Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

I recently wrote about 2009 being the 150th anniversary of the Great Westminster Clock. ‘Big Ben’, as regular readers may recall, first chimed in 1859. Had I been more attentive to dates, I would have noticed at the time that 2008 in fact marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of Palladio, one of architecture’s most influential characters.

Palladio was born in 1508 in Padua, then within the Republic of Venice. Although he only built in that part of Italy, his influence stretched much further afield. His first book was in fact a guide to the classical ruins of Rome but his masterwork, I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture), was published in 1570 and set out strict rules for other architects and builders to follow.

A typical Palladian building is characterised by a variety of classical elements; particularly Roman detailing – Palladio actually knew little about ancient Greece. Although his buildings were grand, they did not depend on expensive materials with many being brick covered with stucco, much like our local classically-inspired compositions such as Lewes Crescent and Sussex Square.

The first Palladian building in England was the Queen’s House in Greenwich which was built by Inigo Jones in 1614-17. The style didn’t really take off until the 18th century though and that’s when Marlborough House and Patcham Place were remodelled and Stanmer House built locally. Each was hugely influenced by Palladio’s design for agricultural villas. Their huge pediments couldn’t be more prominent.

It was Robert Adam who transformed Marlborough House from a very different red-brick structure into the wide symmetrical structure that it is today. He was also responsible for two famous examples of English Palladianism – Syon House and Osterley Park, both in Middlesex. As is the case with any good style of architecture, poor imitations exist though. I wonder what Palladio would say about the naff mock-Palladian buildings of Chalfont Drive in Hove.

I may have forgotten Palladio’s 500th birthday but anybody who remembers mine may wish to add I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura to my list.


Brighton & Hove Open Door 2009

Nick Tyson and his team at the Regency Town House really have hit the jackpot for local lovers of architecture. And it doesn’t cost a penny!

Heritage Open Days, the national event which facilitates public access to all sorts of fascinating buildings, will be launched in Brighton & Hove this year. The programme runs from 10th-13th September and goes by the name of Brighton & Hove Open Door locally.

Many of the usual favourites are on this year’s list which has been steadily growing over the past 15 years. In Brighton, that means the sewer tour, Embassy Court, Middle Street Synagogue, Montpellier Hall, the Old Ship Hotel and the Sussex Masonic Centre. In Hove, there’s Blatchington Windmill, 33 Palmeira Mansions, and Nick Tyson’s Regency Town House on Brunswick Square. That’s a tiny sample though as there are 155 events scheduled – up from 57 last year. This makes Brighton & Hove’s contribution to the national event the largest.

There are many new venues on the list too. Roedean School opens its doors for the first time as does 37 Kensington Place which comes hotly-tipped by those in the know. Earthship Brighton, a particularly special building in Stanmer Park, has had its doors open before but not as part of this event. My small part was introducing Nick to David Porter who lives in the Clayton Tunnel Cottage above the Brighton to London railway line. It has to be one of the most interesting residences in Sussex.

It’s extremely easy to arrange a visit – go to the Regency Town House website, www.rth.org.uk, or a library to find out how. Some require pre-booking and others are only open at certain times. Checking first is essential. It was in fact a visit to the Town House that helped spark my own personal interest in architecture – it’s unmissable as an example of a serious restoration project in progress.

I’ve just booked tickets to two talks on the Sunday on Eric Lyons and Span hosted by Conran & Partners. They relate, in particular, to Park Gate in Hove, the wonderful 1960s development that’s hidden away on Somerhill Road. I also hope to pop in to some of the events which don’t need to be booked over that weekend.

Brighton & Hove Open Door has become, much like some of the buildings on the list, an institution – and that’s down to Nick and an army of volunteers.


20 Middle Street

One of the functions of the Sussex Heritage Trust is to highlight the county’s best renovation projects. A particularly worthy scheme in the heart of Brighton’s Old Town has just won the Commercial Award.

20 Middle Street is today the home of Worth, a media firm, which is quite appropriate given that it was once the home of William Friese-Green, the inventor of cinematography. This Grade II listed building dates from the early 1800s so its bow front and yellow brick construction were not uncommon for its time.

Nine brand new brick voussoir window lintels must have taken some planning but my favourite feature is in fact a drainpipe. The gulley behind the front parapet used to drain through a concealed pipe running inside the building but this inevitably rotted. A new painted cast iron downpipe is a fitting addition to the rather plain façade – and it looks original.

Both inside and out, Brighton-based architect Nigel McMillan and project manager Robert Stiles have put much effort into getting the small details right. This includes maintaining a complicated architrave hierarchy throughout. The most visible areas in the principal rooms get the grandest details and so on. The cornicing with a subtle Greek pattern in the front room on the first floor is best. The six-panelled doors and many of the internal details were made from scratch by Ace Joinery as was the building’s attractive fluted Doric porch. One strikingly modern item, Nigel’s favourite perhaps, is a glass wall and door within the entrance lobby which carries out a number of functions.

The renovation of 20 Middle Street has implications for more than that property alone. Although it is surrounded by a number of great buildings, the road is awaiting its renaissance. Thomas Lainson’s Synagogue and Frank Matcham’s Hippodrome are amongst Brighton & Hove’s finest yet they both sit derelict. Perhaps this scheme will serve to bring focus back to this hugely important street.

Interestingly, Friese-Green carried out a number of his experiments at his home at No. 20 and erected what has been the called the ‘first film studio’ in his garden. Quite rightly, his achievements have been commemorated on a distinctive stone plaque on the front of the building.

Winning a Sussex Heritage Trust Award is a great achievement and with it comes responsibilities. Some are fun though – like where to sensitively site the new plaque which goes to all winners.

See www.sussexheritagetrust.com.