Archive for May, 2010

Phoenix Brighton

The Swiss artist and Bauhaus master, Johannes Itten, died in 1967 – one year before twelve of Waterloo Place’s fourteen important houses were demolished to make way for Wellesley House.

Wellesley House, today known as The Phoenix, made it onto Dr Anthony Seldon’s list of the “City’s Worst Ten Buildings” in his book Brave New City. “This building is ugly, dwarfs its neighbours and is an affront to St. Peter’s Church,” says Seldon. It certainly does dominate Nos. 1 and 2 Waterloo Place (the two buildings which survived the demolition) and the buildings of Richmond Terrace on the other side. But major modifications are planned. I recently met with development manager David Litchfield and from R H Partnership architect Philip Naylor who have recently submitted plans for the renovation of the building.

The Phoenix is home to over one hundred artists from painters and sculptors to performers and film-makers. I cynically asked how improving the building could result in anything other than higher rents for the artists. I was really missing the point of the exercise though which is actually about the generation of income for the benefit of the artists. The addition of a shop, commercial space, and a café/bar at ground floor will all be integral to that aim.

The Phoenix in its current form is hardly inviting. A curved terrace with seating will be created, essentially as an extension to the pavement out front, which will allow pedestrians to get much closer to the building. No extra floors are to be added on top of the six-storey structure but ‘ribbons’ and a radical new colour scheme will entirely transform the overall look. LEDS behind the ribbons on the front of the building will provide light at night and louvres between those on the back will shield the artists from sunlight during the day. The form of the ribbons and the choice of colours were inspired by the work of Itten.

The Phoenix’s location on the junction of two of Brighton’s roads, Lewes Road and Ditchling Road, is key to the funding of the project. A huge advertising banner on the building whilst works takes place will be viewed by thousands upon thousands of motorists and should provide around £1/2 million towards the scheme.

The planning application should be decided over the coming weeks and I look forward to a positive outcome. See www.phoenixarts.org for details of the plans.


St Andrew’s Church, Edburton

I have to be careful writing about churches. It’s never the case that a church is dull as there’s pretty much always a great history to be discovered. The problem is that the features which make one church interesting tend to be shared with every other church. They all have stained glass, high ceilings, carved wood and so on.

At a glance, St. Andrew’s in Edburton could just as easily be St. Andrew’s on Church Road in Hove though its setting at the foot of the South Downs immediately sets it apart. Of course, it comes with all of the hidden mysteries that one would expect from a building that dates back to Saxon times but it wasn’t that which caught my attention. The great story at St. Andrew’s is one of a community coming together and raising over £300,000 to restore their local focal point.

I was shown around St. Andrew’s by my friend Richard Rawlings who has been involved with the restoration of the Grade II Listed building. Like any good church, St. Andrew’s has a grand pair of front doors with an appropriately huge iron key. So much work has already taken place including the installation of new guttering, heating and a toilet; repointing much of the exterior walls; adding new electrics; and repairing the roof. The new cupboards come courtesy of Ikea.

An extremely tight and steep spiral staircase leads up to the belfry in the Norman tower which houses three huge bells which date from the 17th century and earlier. A ladder followed by a lead hatch leads onto the roof which offers views for miles to the west, north and east. To the south are of course the Downs. A beautiful house exists beside the church that was once the vicarage.

The grounds of St. Andrew’s are appropriate to its rich rural setting and a graveyard surrounds the church itself. One notable grave is that of Hamilton Stuart Howgrave-Graham. Howgrave-Graham was the architect of Crawley New Town. “I think that my ashes may be scattered here one day,” said Richard cheerily. Not for a while yet I hope!

St. Andrew’s ‘Good as New’ clothes sale and art exhibition takes place on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd May. What better a time to combine a visit to the church, local pub and a walk on the Downs? Please call Richard on 01273 857776 for details.


28 Albany Villas

I generally steer clear of writing about houses which are for up for sale but every now and then I’m happy to make an exception.

Take 28 Albany Villas for instance which is on the market. Not only is it a complete example of an Osborne House-inspired residence with many original features still in place, it also comes with over 150 years of important documentation. The stack of paperwork includes title deeds, various mortgage agreements and a ground rent receipt. The house was known as No. 11 until the road was renumbered though the documents show both numbers in use at the end of the 19th century.

An auction document which describes the building as ‘an exceedingly well-built villa residence with enclosed garden in front and rear’ is particularly fascinating and mentions the building’s scullery, larder, butler’s pantry and water closet. The 20th century paperwork includes a number of local search documents, a fire insurance certificate and even a will.

There are several complete houses on Albany Villas and I’ve been lucky enough to see around three of them. The exteriors are characterised by light render, belvederes, and slate roofs with large eaves. Inside, the basements were once home to the kitchens so often feature flagstone floors as is the case with No. 28 which has acres of (probably York) stone. The layout down below has been altered slightly but it’s easily possible to work out which walls went where from the gaps between the slabs.

After the basement, I worked my way up to the roof via a pretty staircase with delightful iron balustrades. The roof is double-pitched which means, in this case, that the front and rear sections are separated by a gulley. The front section is small though could in theory be used as a loft but the rear actually contains rooms. Of course, I couldn’t resist climbing on top for the complete Mary Poppins experience.

When Georgina Croft bought 28 Albany Villas, it was, as she puts it, a squat. Turning the four storey house back into a beautiful home must have been an arduous task – but immensely satisfying. Her style of decoration is not exactly orthodox but that’s irrelevant. The mix of modern materials (such as white lino in the lounge) and early Victorian detailing is quirky but it certainly works.

Fortunately, no original features were harmed in the making of this extremely desirable home.


Metropole Hotel Hidden Areas

It’s not clear whether or not the words ‘Norman’ and ‘George’ refer to one or two individuals. The date of the engraving though is certain – ‘1960’. A second inscription, located directly above a huge drop, reads ‘George Johnsto’. Hopefully a George Johnston didn’t falling reaching out for that final ‘n’.

When I wrote about the Metropole Hotel two weeks back, I had no idea that I would get to see its two remaining chimneys up close. Brick and terracotta detailing on the colossal corner flues that only the birds get to see serves as a reminder of this building’s calibre. It was dreadful that AVP industries took control in 1959 and added flats onto the roof. Presumably the letters were carved onto the chimney by those carrying out the work. Incidentally, AVP removed all of the hotel’s other chimneys.

The opulence of the Metropole is legendary yet it’s what happens behind the scenes, in the not so glamorous areas, that fascinates me most. Take the basement for instance (which is reached by a slim set of steps with bright pink walls – a colour chosen by the staff apparently). Of course, there is not a single guest bedroom down below but there is the most complicated array of machinery, pipes and cables imaginable. And it takes years to really get to know this sort of building as I found out from maintenance man David Wilson who was kind enough to show me around.

One interesting hidden spot that the public don’t get to see is a series of rooms beneath the pavement at the front of the building. At that point, I’d long since forgotten which gadgets do what but I do remember glimpsing the largest gas meter imaginable! I also recall shafts in these rooms’ ceilings once served as coal holes. The covers have long since been removed from the pavement above unfortunately.

The country’s first licensed casino opened in 1962 in what was once the Metropole’s chapel. When the conference rooms were added behind the hotel, they were simply wrapped around the chapel. From above, it’s possible to see its grand Victorian roof emerging from amongst the dreary flat roofs and, from the inside, it’s possible to see the ornate original exterior terracotta mouldings within one of the conference centre service corridors.

Many thanks to David for the excellent tour and for being such a great ambassador for the hotel.