Archive for May, 2011

Road Widening in Central Brighton

The most ambitious road projects that we see locally today tend to involve changes to a pedestrian crossing or modifications to a cycle lane.

Over one hundred years ago though, a series of grand schemes to deal with traffic in the centre of Brighton were dreamt up and actioned. Each involved the demolition of many fine buildings. I can only imagine the reaction, and cost, to similar plans being released today.

On Western Road for example, Brighton Corporation began buying buildings on the north side, east of Hampton Place, in 1906. Similarly, all of the buildings on the west side of West Street, except St Paul’s Church, were earmarked for demolition as were a number of buildings on the north side of North Street. The works took place during the 1920s and 30s.

Photographs of the buildings which were pulled down form part of the James Gray Collection which is easily viewed on the Regency Society’s website. Although I shudder when I look at what was demolished, I do feel that it was somewhat of a blessing in disguise. The 20s and 30s were great decades for architecture and I particularly like much of what was constructed at that time on the north side of Western Road, such as the huge Art Deco edifice that is currently home to Primark. On North Street, Prince’s House, built in 1935/6 to the designs of H. S. Goodhart-Rendel, is impressive also.

There were many earlier schemes though. Duke Street and West Street, were widened during the 1860s. North Street was widened during the 1870s which resulted in huge changes being made to the Chapel Royal. I recently wrote about the vaults beneath that church and thought it strange at the time, bearing in mind that the building’s entrance is on the south side, that the five parallel chambers below ran from east to west, rather than south to north.

I believe that this can be explained by the fact that the entrance was originally on the east side. The removal of a building directly to the south during the road widening works left an entire flank of the church exposed. The exterior was totally rebuilt and a distinctive tower was added. With the main entrance now located on the south side, it is clear that the church was essentially rotated by 90º.

After all that, North Street was again widened during the 1960s.

7 Wilbury Crescent

A huge north-facing window in the attic space of 7 Wilbury Crescent, a somewhat intriguing house near Hove Station, is an instant giveaway of its life as the home of an artist. It was in fact the home of several artists.

In its current dilapidated state, the semi-detached property is straight from the pages of an Enid Blyton book. Its overgrown front garden draws the eye and a number of interesting external features invite further curiosity.

First, it is somewhat odd that the house is a semi. Semi-detached properties are generally built as matching pairs. In this instance, each of the two houses is distinct.

No. 7 was designed by Denman & Son for Charles and Averil Burleigh and was granted planning permission in 1903. Denman & Son was responsible for many fine local buildings including the Sussex Masonic Centre on Queen’s Road and the Freemason’s Tavern on Western Road. The house was built in 1907 and is thought to have been the first on the street.

There are two principal floors along with a huge attic studio space above and a sprawling cellar complex beneath. Little has been done to the house over the years though a large conservatory-like studio was added to the rear of the building during the 1920s. Bakelite door handles, ancient wallpaper (attached using Sellotape in places), a kitchen so old that it would now be thought ‘retro’ and all sorts of other fascinating details add up to the refurbishment project of a lifetime.

Just as there are paintings strewn all around the house, there are paintings dotted around the garden also, presumably unwanted. The garden is an absolute delight actually. A stone path weaves past huge trees, shells and statues right up to the end of the garden. From the back, it is difficult to see the house but an unusual view does exist in the opposite direction. There is a good view of the bridge to the west but an even better view to the east of the point where the line from Hove divides into the lines to both London and Brighton. Well, I found it interesting anyway.

7 Wilbury Crescent is currently for sale through Elliotts and potential purchasers are invited to submit offers as sealed bids by the end of May. Budding artists, or indeed anybody whose creativity stretches beyond magnolia and laminate flooring, should be put in the picture.

Local Built Environment

The development of the King Alfred, the Marina, Black Rock, the i360, the Open Market, the Brighton Centre, and, one day, Churchill Square will define Brighton & Hove for generations to come. With such substantial projects in the pipeline, it is rather worrying that so many schoolboy mistakes are still being made by the City Council.

My interest in politics began with a love of local architecture. Trying to work out the original layout of a badly-divided-up house on the east side of Brunswick Square whilst a student led to my belief that bad behaviour is often rewarded in the property business. Whoever ruined the interior of that particular house should be dragged from their Costa del Sol retirement and made to put it right. Against the background of a rotten Embassy Court, I vowed to make a positive contribution locally. I joined the Regency Society and began writing about local history for Latest Homes!

I chose to get involved in politics and recall telephoning the two main parties. On top of having a strong belief in personal responsibility, I chose the Conservatives over Labour because I was impressed with Cllr Averil Older’s stance on historic buildings. I’m standing for Council in May for Regency Ward with my fellow campaigner, Mike Macfarlane. In our literature over the past year, we never moan about things that are unfixable and always try to be positive. Despite genuine efforts, it is honestly hard for us to reel off a list of recent local architectural triumphs.

The Jubilee Library has undoubtedly been a phenomenal success. It has just the right ingredients to work in the North Laine – not too high, relatively square and built using a locally-influenced material (black mathematical tiles). Unfortunately, the only other example that springs to mind is the transformation of Embassy Court from a wreck back into one of the city’s greatest assets. The Council, however, can’t take the credit for this. It is a great shame though that the list of disasters is considerably longer.

Spaceship Tesco on Church Road is an appalling neighbour to its Victorian elders. That horrible plastic building on North Street next to Boots should never have been given planning permission. All of those lovely houses in lower Hove should not have been knocked down to make characterless blocks of flats. That horrible new piece of Victorian pastiche by the Clock Tower shouldn’t have been built anywhere; let alone in that high profile location. The placing of that yellow, blue, and white curved monstrosity on the corner opposite the Royal Pavilion was even worse. There are so many more examples– the West Pier, the Bandstand, the Hippodrome, Tesco (surprise) by Palmeira Square – I could go on! It makes me so angry but one issue in particular really makes my blood boil.

Frank Gehry’s wobbly proposals for the King Alfred are truly disappointing and I’m amazed that there is any support for it at all. As demonstrated by the recent ICM poll, the scheme’s supporters are in favour principally because it is better than what we’ve got currently which is not exactly difficult. I say that we should not be giving up so easily; we have choices. The success of the Jubilee Library clearly demonstrates that there are capable local architects who may be able to do better. The Library’s architect, Nick Lomax, is currently working on an alternative scheme for the King Alfred in a more appropriate style that has a 50m pool instead of Gehry’s 25m, a ten pin bowling alley, a conference centre and no towers. This is seriously worth investigation.

I think more about the prospect of a new Brighton Centre than any other project though I would go considerably further than anything suggested so far by also combining Kingswest and Churchill Square into an entirely new scheme. In my dream plan, the Grand Hotel would buy some of the site to restore symmetry to itself and provide badly-needed conference accommodation. Every one of the many tall car parks in the area would be combined and put underground with entrances and exits on Cannon Place. Russell Road would no longer be needed and would be absorbed by my scheme. The current West Street car park entrance would be pedestrianised and turned into the ‘leisure entrance’ for the cinemas which would be built just behind it. Cannon Place though certainly wouldn’t be forgotten. It would receive a magnificent new frontage of appropriate small hotels, houses and independent shops in keeping with the remaining Regency buildings. Now there’s a vision!

Every new building should be outstanding. Buildings influence the way that people behave, especially in dense areas. I genuinely believe this. Every single architectural failure to date has sent out a message to developers that it is acceptable to ride roughshod over residents’ wishes. Every bad application that we beat wastes developers’ time and money which should ultimately lead to good applications being submitted.

As Researcher to the Shadow Minister for Housing & Planning, a local historian, a property investor and a downright stubborn campaigner, I have the tools at my disposal to become a real architectural champion for the City of Brighton & Hove. By May, Mike and I will have done plenty to convince the residents of Regency Ward that we’re up to the job.

Chapel Royal Vaults

I learnt of the vaults beneath the Chapel Royal on North Street when I saw that they are currently being marketed by Graves Son & Pilcher. The 3,400 sq ft subterranean space is available for purchase at £100,000 or for rent at £8,000 per annum

The extensive vaults were presumably built as a crypt but have been used as a store in the past for both wine and books. In 1978, they were converted into a church hall and have since been used as a storage area for files. It is anyone’s guess what they will be used for next. A restaurant or music studio perhaps?

Hargreaves, a West Sussex-based property business, owns the vaults and it was one of that firm’s representatives who kindly showed me around. A board had to be removed from an opening on the east side of the building on Prince’s Place to allow access. Sadly the doors which usually cover the aperture were damaged by some drunks.

There are essentially five chambers with arched ceilings which run from east to west and a single chamber to the west side which connects them. The central three chambers form one large room with supporting columns. Solid walls presumably once separated them. The ceilings are low in places but this just adds to the character as does an old alarm featuring a five digit Brighton telephone number.

The basement is an excellent place to start when researching the history of any building, especially when it has escaped major renovation. In the case of the Chapel Royal, its east-west orientation is an interesting anomaly bearing in mind that the church above runs south-north. It can be explained by a change in orientation of the church. The main door to the Chapel Royal is now on North Street but it was originally on Prince’s Place. The entirety of the North Street façade is non-original in fact. It was added when adjacent shops to the south were demolished during the 1870s so that the road could be widened.

I love to track down the hidden areas of our local landmarks. So many basements have made fascinating column topics including those at the Metropole Hotel, Freemason’s Tavern, Royal Pavilion and Preston Manor. Towers can be even more interesting though and I soon hope to meet Father David Biggs, who has looked after the Chapel Royal since 1999, for a behind-the-scenes tour.

RNLI Boathouse, Shoreham

The RNLI boathouse that was built on Kingston Beach in 1933 was knocked down in 2009 to make way for a new £4.2 million cathedral-like structure. The highly advanced building, which opened in October 2010, houses two different rescue boats and features exposed timber throughout.

The larger of the two boats is housed within a cavernous hangar with a vaulted roof. It is a 2,000 horse power Tamar class lifeboat called Enid Collett which takes its name from the late donor whose legacy funded its purchase. It cost £2.7 million, weighs 31 tonnes and can hold up to 118 people. A smaller inshore lifeboat is housed within the eastern portion of the building. Each boat has its own new slipway leading to the sea below.

The frame of the building consists of huge glulam beams (from Austria apparently). Much of the exterior has been clad with timber and timber windows have been used throughout. Other environmentally friendly features include a ground source heat pump and rainwater harvesting.

I was lucky enough to go out on a trip to the Marina on Enid Collett on the day that I visited the boathouse. The thrill began the moment that the boat was released from its shackles, a second or so before it hit the sea at the bottom of the slipway. Although it was quite misty, I loved looking at the buildings along the seafronts of Hove and Brighton from a fresh perspective. Up close, buildings look very different to how their respective architects would have drawn them. From street level, for example, the lower levels of a building dominate the view. From afar, the proportions even out. The seafront compositions of Brunswick Town and Kemp Town were particularly pleasing when viewed from the boat.

The team at Shoreham is headed by Coxswain Peter Huxtable, a local fishmonger, who explained to me just how much the RNLI relies on donations and volunteers. It receives no government assistance whatsoever (and doesn’t want it either) and the new boathouse was built following a massive community fundraising drive. Funnily enough, Texaco donates the fuel for the boats at Shoreham – which is not at all cheap.

A dinner is being held on Saturday 14th May at the Grand Hotel to celebrate the opening of the new boathouse and tickets are still available. I’ll certainly be there. Please call Geraldine Huxtable on 01273 454545 for more information.