Archive for March, 2010

St Mary & St Abraam Church

Readers are unlikely to have heard of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Yet Brighton & Hove is home to a huge Coptic community based in what was once the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle on Davigdor Road.

St. Thomas’s was completed in stages but the key year in my mind is 1907 when two bays of the main building opened beneath a temporary flat roof. The red-brick structure was to consist of eight bays but five were actually built. This intention is quite apparent both internally and externally even now if you look closely. The architects were Clayton & Black, who were also responsible for Gwydyr Mansions, the Duke of York’s Cinema, the French Convalescent Home on the Kemp Town seafront, and the pink granite Leeds Permanent Building Society offices on North Street.

As St. Thomas’s, the building faced demolition and the last Anglican service was held there in 1993. But in 1994, the building was consecrated under a new name, St. Mary & St. Abraam, by the leader of the Coptic Orthodix Church, Pope Shenouda III. Prior to that point, services were held at All Saints on The Drive. The growth of the community, today numbering around 5,000 mainly from Sudan and Egypt, would not have taken place without the support of its enigmatic founder, Gamal Khalil.

St. Mary & St. Abraam is today used every day of the week. Services tend to be held in Arabic but there is an English service on Saturdays. Contrary to my preconceptions, the priests are surprisingly modern and use laptops and i-Pods to get the message across! A vicarage was built on Nizell’ s Avenue behind in 1929 but was separated from the church at some point. It is now reunited with the main building and is home to a thriving Sunday school.

A particular architectural treat within the church is a huge iconostasis which separates the sanctuary from the rest of the interior. It was carved in Cairo from American oak and French mahogany and then shipped over in sections. A crypt exists beneath the basement but this is currently sealed off.

This year, Easter will be celebrated on Sunday 4th April by the Coptic Orthodox Church, the same date as the Church of England. I am not religious nor can I speak Arabic, but I will certainly be in attendance to support this immensely welcoming community which I respect deeply.


West Pier Update

“On the 19th March 1998, the Trustees of the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed, on certain conditions, to accept our application. Thus, on that date, the funding for the restoration of the West Pier, public and private, was secured. Now we can get down to the real work.”

That was back in 1998 just after a promise of £14.2 million had been made. Fred Gray was, indeed, right when he wrote the above in his book Walking on Water. But the work that he had in mind certainly wouldn’t have included fighting a legal challenge from the owners of the Palace pier and then dealing with the collapse of the famous concert hall (not to mention the two arson attacks which destroyed, well, pretty much everything but the iron frame). Years and years of hard work just went up in smoke.

The fires seem so long ago now and only remind me how much I wish that I’d taken one of those tours which allowed visitors a view of the derelict pavilion and concert hall up close. Perhaps the pier in its complete form seems such a distant memory because of the now iconic status of the bare skeletal frame which is said to be the most photographed building in Brighton.

I recently met up with Rachel Clark, the West Pier Trust’s Chief Executive, to find out what ‘real work’ is taking place at the moment. After all, the Brighton i360 viewing tower received planning permission back in 2006 so it’s reasonable to ask why construction has not yet commenced. To be fair, the task of removing the surrounding wreckage, which included the wrecked concert hall, has now been carried out. And this was highlighted (literally) in February when the pavilion was illuminated in a dramatic laser show organized by Tiger Beer to celebrate the Chinese New Year of the Tiger.

The i360 is indeed still set to be built and it’s just a question of a bank ticking a box. Bearing in mind that sections of the structure have already been fabricated, it shouldn’t be too long a job either.

Looking at the dates, 2016 will be the 150th anniversary of the opening of the West Pier. If the i360 can be up in two years, I see no real reason why a whole new pier cannot be in place for the big day – whatever form it takes.

See www.westpier.co.uk.


Connaught Centre Listing

Two years ago, I wrote about the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Connaught Centre on Connaught Road in Hove. The building’s owners, City College, were looking to consolidate their property portfolio which may well have led to the Connaught’s sale and demolition. If Ninka Willcock and her Brighton Society colleagues and contacts hadn’t stepped in to campaign for listing then perhaps the site would now be home to a Tesco petrol station.

The Connaught Centre began as Connaught Road School and opened in 1884. Separate entrances existed for teachers, junior boys, junior girls and mixed infants. It was built by John T. Chappell and designed by Thomas Simpson at a total cost of £12,180. A pleasing mixture of red bricks, yellow bricks and terracotta leaves us in no doubt that Simpson went above and beyond the call of duty. Grand gables, huge windows and no gap between facade and pavement stamp the building’s authority on its surroundings. Simpson was also responsible for Finsbury Road School, Downs Junior School and St. Luke’s School in Brighton but the Connaught is his only surviving building in Hove. It is an excellent example of a Queen Anne-style school and is generally well preserved internally and externally. These features strengthened the case for listing.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport is responsible for listing buildings of ‘special architectural or historic interest’ and is advised by English Heritage and other organisations when assessing applications. Around half a million buildings feature in the register which is published by the Secretary of State’s Department. A register of local listed buildings is kept by Brighton & Hove City Council though.

The Connaught Centre was awarded Grade II Listed status last year – its 125th birthday in fact! A listed building should not be demolished, extended or altered without special permission but this level of protection mustn’t be taken for granted. Listed buildings do vanish. Indeed, look at the Grade I Listed West Pier.

A number of events, displays and competitions are being held at the Connaught Centre on Saturday 20th March to celebrate the building’s 125th year. Research on the building is still being undertaken and members of the public are being encouraged to bring along any interesting documents or photographs.

For details on the celebrations, see www.connaughtcentre125.blogspot.com or call 01273 667744. The Victorian School Experience’ for ‘children of all ages’ certainly does sound like fun.


Aquarium Redevelopment

Should the process of consultation just be used as a tool by developers to appease those affected by a planning application or can it be a positive opportunity to learn from neighbours who know a site best? As consultant for the owners of Brighton Aquarium, I am finding out first-hand that embracing the latter really is key to any successful project.

The Aquarium opened in its original Gothic form in 1872 to the designs of Eugenius Birch, a famous pier engineer who had already built the West Pier. It closed in 1927 and reopened two years later following a £117,000 face-lift featuring white Empire stonework. New facilities included a ballroom, bandstand and concert hall. A number of units were built on the terraces above in 2000 and a nightclub at beach and basement levels, set to be Brighton’s biggest, was to anchor the development. The club never opened though and the scheme ultimately failed.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved as a consultant to ensure that a great deal of genuine communication takes place between those responsible for what happens next on the site and those living nearby. A master-plan is evolving and a critical point has just been reached in that plans have been submitted for the site’s flagship restaurant.

The unit’s dull facade on the lower terrace is to be overhauled and additional windows in a complimentary style added to the side in order to flood the interior of the 1990s structure with light. The dreadful 1990s pavilion will be removed from the upper terrace and the clumsy disabled access ramp replaced with a lift. Young Architect of the Year winner, David Kohn, has been responsible for the architectural work which, incidentally, doesn’t affect the operations of the Sea Life Centre below. From a historical perspective, I am particularly delighted that the rejuvenation of the landmark 1920s pavilion is central to the scheme.

I recall arranging tours several months ago of the derelict units on the terraced areas of the building along with the vacant nightclub space below with a genuinely open mind on what the future was to hold. The Aquarium’s owners have since managed to put together sympathetic plans consisting of a restaurant and small interconnecting hotel within the confines of the current structure.

Plans for other unoccupied areas are uncertain but I can’t wait to discuss them with those living nearby who care most.


John Wells-Thorpe: Behind the Façade

As a student at Sussex University, my love of my campus surroundings was perhaps born more from my fond memories of those care-free days than from deep architectural analysis. Nevertheless, the latter has strengthened my fondness for Sir Basil Spence’s masterpiece and left me with an open mind on other buildings of the period.

Friends and family are often shocked when I point out the aesthetic merits of Park Gate on Somerhill Road or, indeed, those of Eaton Manor on The Drive but nevertheless, I am keen not to sentence the best of that period to the wrecking ball just as architects of the 1960s and 70s did to their Victorian predecessors. I’ve recently warmed to Hove’s controversial Town Hall so was delighted to discover that its architect, John Wells-Thorpe, has recently released a book – Behind the Façade.

Wells-Thorpe was born in Alexandra Villas in 1928; early enough to see service at the tale end of the Second World War. In fact, it was in Singapore in 1947 that he designed and built his first structure – a scaffold and tarpaulin gunnery shelter! Although he has worked all around the world, a strong local connection remained firmly in place and many notable projects followed.

Wells-Thorpe’s schemes include the Church Hall of the Ascension in Westdene (1958), St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Woodingdean (1959) the first George Street improvement (1962), Hove Town Hall (1974) and the Brighthelm Centre (1987). I couldn’t tease the name of John’s favourite architect from him but he gave the Royal College of Physicians in Regent’s Park by Sir Denys Lasdun, who also designed the National Theatre, as his favourite building. A similarity can certainly be seen in their respective styles.

Designing buildings and writing are of course different skills so is Behind the Façade constructed as well as Wells-Thorpe’s buildings? It’s in essence a book detailing the stories behind buildings; about how things get done. This, for me, is just as important as the buildings themselves and his insight and humour make it an essential read.

Wells-Thorpe still lives locally (Varndean) and shows little sign of slowing down. From that simple gunnery shelter to the huge projects which he oversees today, often on the other side of the table as a client, Wells-Thorpe has thrown his life into the pursuit of excellence in the built environment. And that is why he is perhaps Brighton’s greatest architectural son.