Archive for July, 2011

St John’s Road

When I last mentioned ABIR Architects, it was with respect to the firm’s work on George Williams House. I recall being particularly impressed by the development, on George Williams Mews in Portslade, and, indeed, by their offices on my favourite mews in Hove, Wilbury Grove.

ABIR has now moved to another Hove mews with which I am familiar, St John’s Road. It was known in its early days as Palmeira Mews Road and is one of several wonderful mews roads in the area. I should know, I often use them to test taxi drivers who are bold enough to claim that they know all of the roads in the city.

Models of buildings and a Pantone Orange 021 C cup instantly suggest that the newly-converted office is inhabited by a firm of architects. Although ABIR was not involved with the development itself, the firm did influence finishes as one might expect. Suspended ceilings and strip lights were avoided in favour of lintels on display and Ridi lights. Almost everything is white except a rather distinct 3mm thick silver-grey poured resin floor and exposed galvanised steel conduit.

As a fan of ABIR, I know that each of the four directors brings so much more to the table than just the first letter of their surname. I am fully aware of the work of Simon Atkins and Ollie Blair, at 1a Whichelo Place and at Brighton Housing Trust’s premises on Oriental Place respectively. Indeed, the latter was the subject of a coveted Sussex Heritage Trust award. Also, the Whitehawk Inn and George Williams House projects – by Giles Ing and Matt Richardson respectively – have been the subject of column topics in their own right.

St John’s Road has long associations with the motor industry and ABIR’s new office at No. 22a once served as a car workshop. 22a consists of two matching red-brick buildings (presumably Victorian but recently named Alpha House and Beta House) and between them is a modern infill consisting of two slim houses (Nos. 1 and 2 The Sands). There were certainly applications in 1925 and 1928 for the site from a motor engineer called Mark Phillip Stoneham to store petrol on the premises.

The numbering system on the road is indeed quirky which can be explained by the way in which development has progressed over the years. Much harder to explain is why there is no plural of ‘mews’.


Dome Behind the Scenes

I began writing a quadrilogy of columns on Brighton’s famous Dome at the end of 2008 but, for all sorts of reasons, I never quite got around to finishing the fourth.

A recent glorious morning proved to be the perfect opportunity to return to the building’s roof to take some photographs of the Dome’s dome up-close. Thinking back, previous attempts to get photographs were thwarted by scaffolding and bad weather. Matt Ashby from the maintenance team was kind enough to show me around on this particular visit – on a day with the bluest of skies.

The roof is reached via a narrow spiral staircase from the mezzanine level just above the recently-refurbished foyer bar area. The staircase suddenly opens out onto a huge expanse with views of the Corn Exchange, museum, and Royal Pavilion. The dome itself has raised areas which were once windows but it is now entirely lead-covered. Although they are not pretty, the various air-conditioning units which inhabit the roof are features.

There are actually two domes – an inner dome and an outer dome – and a cavity exists between them. The outer dome, that which I saw from the roof, is the building’s original dome. The inner dome was added as part of Robert Atkinson’s Art Deco renovation that took place in 1934-5. Within the narrow cavity, it is possible to see parts of the old paint scheme (presumably part of Philip Lockwood’s works which saw the conversion of the building from stables to concert hall in 1867). Also, it is pretty clear from within where the window openings were which once let light flood in.

Although it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the Dome’s Art Deco interior, some of the most fascinating areas of the Dome are the least glamorous. A myriad of complicated mechanisms in front of the stage, beneath the auditorium, can be moved to facilitate the needs of different performance routines. I was interested particularly though by some of the dressing rooms below which have been named after greats such as Wlliam Porden, the architect of the original building.

They might have accommodated some of the world’s biggest stars but as basement rooms off narrow corridors out of the view of the public, dressing rooms without windows are not likely to be glitzy. Nevertheless, if walls could talk, I am sure that they would have some pretty interesting stories to tell.


First Base Day Centre Refurbishment Completion

During my one and only previous visit to Brighton Housing Trust’s First Base Day Centre, there was ivy coming in through the windows.

That was back in April 2009 when a sensitive renovation project was only just getting underway. After attending the recent launch event as a guest of the local RIBA, I was under no doubt whatsoever that some pretty hard graft has taken place.

The First Base Day Centre is situated within St Stephen’s Church, a building that actually began as the ballroom of the Castle Inn at the foot of North Street. It was first built by John Crunden in 1766 and then became King George IV’s private chapel in 1822. It closed as a church in 1939.

The building came to be was sold to the people of Brighton, along with the rest of the Pavilion Estate, by Queen Victoria in 1850 but it was actually taken apart and rebuilt in its present position on Montpelier Place in 1852 to escape demolition when North Street was due to be widened. It was Grade II* listed in 1952.

I recall my first visit to First Base well. The centre area of the main hall felt overwhelmingly spacious and under-utilised yet the ends felt cramped by the presence of several portacabin-like additions. Lots of the original features, such as the cornicing, were in urgent need of repair, and the walls had been stained, not painted, Nicotine Yellow.

The grand main entrance of the building has been brought back into use so I was able enter the proper way this time. Chloe Hobden at Camillin Denny Architects has gone to great lengths to design two attractive new structures – one for each end of the hall – and it is possible to walk around them and admire features on the walls that were previously obscured.

Chloe, along with Andy Winter and his team at Brighton Housing Trust, should be incredibly proud of the end result and everything seems to have been thoroughly thought through. Regency Pea Green was actually proposed for the interior as an alternative to Nicotine Yellow but Chloe explained that this was wisely deemed “too institutional” by the centre manager.

Celestial Blue was picked in the end and it works well. I would perhaps have gone for Ivy Green had it not been such a stark reminder of how the building was so different just two years ago.


Arundel Square

In recent months, I haven’t been shy in supporting Hyde Housing Association’s plans for the Open Market by London Road. Correspondingly, I haven’t been quiet in fighting Hyde’s plans to demolish Park House by Hove Park.

I recently met with Tom Shaw from Hyde and Andy Parsons from PTE Architects to see several quite special schemes in London. Tom and Andy are both passionate about their work and it is clear that each of them is totally behind what they are doing. My motive in attending was to be as educated as possible when I come to form my own views on the next Park House proposal.

The Grand Tour included Artesian House in Bermondsey along with Packington Square and Diespeker Wharf in Islington. I was most taken though with a third Islington scheme – Arundel Square that was completed in 2010. That particular project saw the completion of a Victorian composition that should have been ready 150 years ago.

Yellow-brick and stucco terraces line three sides of Arundel Square and, until a few years back, the fourth side was a mess of an open railway cutting. The story goes that that the square’s original developer went bankrupt before completing the scheme. PTE completed the square in a highly appropriate – yet modern – manner. The railway is now invisible, just as it should have been previously.

Locally, in the very centre of Brighton, Chartwell Court occupies the east side of Russell Square that is the rightful home of a Regency terrace. Then there is the case of the Grand Hotel which is no longer symmetrical after it was extended to the west in 1986. Also, the Kingswest Building, home to the Odeon Cinema, is on the seafront yet it has few windows.

There are solutions to these problems but they share the common characteristic of each being rather fundamental in nature. By that, I mean that no amount of tweaking will change what is wrong – Russell Square needs its fourth side back; the Grand needs an east extension; and Kingswest needs windows. Lessons can be learnt from Arundel Square.

Brighton-based architect Andy Parsons was working with PTE when we last met up but has since taken on the Park House project under the banner of Yelo Architects. I look forward to seeing what he has in mind for the site. In the meantime, see www.yeloarchitects.com for a flavour of what’s to come.