Archive for March, 2011

Skidelsky Building

When Robert Skidelsky attended Brighton College during the 1950s, it would have looked much as it does now.

One new feature, that was certainly not in place back then, is a strikingly modern multi-purpose block on the west side of the site. The four storey building is not large in comparison to some of the huge Victorian structures nearby but its unashamedly modern styling ensures that it stands out for a different reason.

Black brick, straight lines and large expanses of glass characterise the exterior of the new structure which was designed by the architectural practice Kirkland Fraser Moor. The ground floor is dedicated to Design Technology and the first floor to English. An office at the very top overlooking a large common room gives teachers their own space which is not too far away from the action.

The interior includes a number of harsh stylistic details such as exposed concrete and unpainted steel conduits. Industrial styling does not usually lead to cosiness yet, in this instance, that is exactly the result. Calming views of the sea to the south and racecourse and allotments to the north-west certainly help to that end as does an abundance of quality timber, such as that of the windows and staircase.

The spot was previously occupied by the old Art School which was demolished during the summer of 2009. The opening took place in October 2010 when an old friend of Brighton College returned to carry out the official ceremony. Having been made a life peer in 1991, Robert Skidelsky returned as Lord Skidelsky to open the new building bearing his name – the Skidelsky Building.

Skidelsky never actually went away. As Chairman of the Governors, the great historian, writer and politician oversees the management of Brighton College’s funds and property.

Not all of the additions which have been carried out at Brighton College since the 1950s will stand the test of time. The corner building on the south-west corner is one such example which demonstrates that ‘fitting in’ should not be the foremost priority. Fortunately, the Skidelsky Building has a level of architectural integrity which many of the others lack.

Over fifty years have passed since Lord Skidelsky studied at Brighton College and the best bits have changed little in that time. Hopefully the Skidelsky Building will look much as it does currently in the event of a follow-up column – fifty years from now.


Whitehawk Inn

We may well have seen a proliferation of new bars on Western Road in recent years but this is not reflective of a much wider trend. Pubs have been closing for a number of years for a variety of reasons.

Just as the demise of the high street bank provided an opportunity for bars to move in, the fall in fortune of the suburban pub has presented hundreds of equally interesting conversion opportunities. With stone facades and high ceilings, the banks lent themselves well to most conversion opportunities but the pubs, often built on prominent sites overlooking busy road junctions, are a little trickier.

Take the Whitehawk Inn for example. It was built in 1934 and is a perfect example, on the outside anyway, of a typical 1930s community pub. The style is instantly recognisable and other examples locally include the Grenadier in Hangleton and Ladies Mile in Patcham, both dating from 1935.

In its dominant position on the corner of Whitehawk Road, the Whitehawk Inn stands out immediately, once serving as a beacon for the many travelling salesmen who once stayed in the rooms upstairs. Whereas the Grenadier and Ladies Mile continue as community pubs, the Whitehawk Inn has a different use entirely; still as a community hub fortunately.

The Whitehawk Inn today could be described in many ways. It has certainly evolved since it opened – reopened in fact – in 1999 as a community centre specialising in IT training. I was shown around by its Director, Frances Duncan, who explained to me that the focus now is much more on helping people to find work, though all sorts of exciting activities take place there.

Most interior features have been removed such as the long sweeping bar and built-in window seating. Ceiling height and room layout count as features and these still remain of course. The exterior has hardly been touched and all of the classic 1930s detailing remains such as the semi-circular holes through which water drains from the balcony into iron hoppers, and chimneys with a Modernist touch. The pub sign, which actually features a white hawk, has been removed but it is stored away safely in the adjoining garage.

Social trends evolve and it is inevitable that buildings are modified as a reaction to such changes. The Whitehawk Inn functions amazingly well in its current guise. I doubt that the pub sign will ever be needed again.


Wykeham Terrace Model

The closing scene of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark depicts a crate containing the Ark of the Covenant being safely stored away in a sprawling government warehouse full of countless similar crates. I imagine Brighton & Hove City Council’s museum store to be a similar facility.
 
Whatever appearance it takes, I have no doubt that it contains a myriad of hidden treasures. One such artifact is a scale model of Wykeham Terrace that I heard about some years ago. It took two years to arrange the viewing but I was finally able to see model at the end of February. It was certainly worth the wait.
 
Wykeham Terrace is the rather distinctive Grade II listed Regency composition on Dyke Road, just below St Nicholas Church. Unlike other local compositions of the period, the style is Gothic rather than Classical. It consists of 13 four-storey houses, of which only several have been converted into flats.
 
Having invited a number of Wykeham Terrace residents and members of several local amenity societies to the Education Pavilion at Brighton Museum, hype was building around the event. I had little idea what to expect though. I was pleasantly surprised by how many of those that I invited came (around 50) but, most importantly, just how remarkable the model is in its depiction of the historic terrace.
 
Due to the presence of several obstacles such as trees and walls, it is not so easy to see the entirety of the real terrace in all of its glory. The model allows such views and presents the terrace in a way that I had never seen before. Its symmetry, in particular, is now much clearer to me.
 
The wood and card model came into the possession of the people of Brighton & Hove in 1986 and was certainly on display in the Brighton Museum until 1999, the year that the large works programme commenced. It was built by “Messrs Barnard, Firth, Flmnn and Sattar of the School of Architecture, Brighton Polytechnic”. The spelling of “Flmnn” may well be incorrect but that is what went down in the records.
 
I am grateful to Local History Curator Heather Fitch who organised for the model to be removed from storage and carried out some research into its history. She was present during the viewing to answer questions – and also to tell my excited guests to stop touching the model.


Masterplan

I often wonder what architects think of this column. Is praise valued and criticism taken onboard? They can be a touchy bunch sometimes.

One man who has just made my day is Brighton-based author Charles Bancroft who has told me that my very comments about his 2009 hit novel The Architect influenced his work on the newly-released sequel, Masterplan.

It’s a tale of secret identity, international travel and world-class architecture – but that’s just the life of the author whose real name I have sworn not to reveal. ‘Bancroft’ runs a fascinating architectural empire from his office in the centre of Brighton and he lives in Hove.

The Architect followed the exploits of Rob Gilbert, a top London architect fighting to clear his name when one of his signature buildings mysteriously collapses. Gilbert returns in Masterplan but this time he dices with politicians and scientists rather than gangsters. Once again, alcohol and women feature throughout.

One famous local author who often mentions Brighton and Hove in his scary books is Peter James. Having been sent a rather blurred photograph of a man resembling him, I would not have been surprised at all if Peter had turned out to be my mystery lunch guest with whom I met to talk about the new book. It turned out though that I knew this interesting character from somewhere else entirely (but I am not saying where – sorry!).

My one criticism of The Architect was that Brighton did not feature. It was a cracking read on the whole but, bearing in mind the situation of the author, I was hoping that my beloved Brighton would pop up at some point. It didn’t though.

Bancroft did listen and I am glad. Masterplan’s grand finale, where several plot lines coming crashing together, involves a famous Brighton landmark. To find out which, you’ll just have to read the book (and it’s not anything too obvious like the Royal Pavilion or Palace Pier I was pleased to discover).

Masterplan is flying off the shelves all around the world and I can only see this franchise getting bigger. The short chapters would translate extremely well to film and the third part of the trilogy involving the forthcoming Olympic Games is now well underway.

So Charles, if you’re reading, don’t forget us in Brighton when you hit the big screen – and remember, no filming in Eastbourne like the new Brighton Rock.


Royal Alexandra Plans

The closest that most members of the public get to the planning process is objecting to an application. But in the case of the derelict Royal Alex, letters of support flooded in and the application was approved by the Planning Committee unanimously

The Royal Alexandra Hospital for Sick Children on Dyke Road opened in 1881 to the designs of Thomas Lainson, an architect whose work includes Middle Street Synagogue, Adelaide Mansions and Brooker Hall (now Hove Museum). It is defined by a soaring brick façade with enclosed stone balconies.

The site itself is roughly triangular and consists of an eclectic mix of charming outbuildings including a rather large rendered Victorian villa and a stonemason’s cottage. These two structures could be turned into dream homes so why did the area’s two respected amenity societies, the MCHA (Montpelier and Clifton Hill Association) and CMPCA (Clifton Montpelier Powis Community Alliance), not fight the latest proposed scheme – which involve these buildings’ demolition – tooth and nail

Appropriate buildings are rarely built because those who care are simply not equipped with the tools to mount a robust defence. Under the chairmanship of Mick Hamer, the MCHA has done a wonderful job at bargaining for the building’s famous façade to be retained and restored. The crux of the matter is that Taylor Wimpey paid too much for the site and only an inappropriate scheme will go some way towards mitigating their losses. With nothing left to bargain with, residents had little choice but to support these plans in case something worse comes along.

One resident who certainly is not happy is my friend Philippa Sankey, who lives on Clifton Hill. Her garden and those of all of her neighbours are set to be overlooked and, quite frankly, dominated by a monstrous replacement structure. I do not need to describe the architectural style of the proposed structure. It looks like every other builder-designed property that has been built in Brighton and Hove over the past 15 years.

To end on a positive note, I am convinced that pre-emptive planning briefs from Brighton and Hove City Council are key to working out what really is best for a site before large sums of money change hands. With a plan in place in advance, an appropriate value for a site can be calculated. Those who care enough to get involved can then spend their time being constructive rather than objecting.