Archive for August, 2012

New England Quarter

Most conversations about Brighton’s New England Quarter end in agreement on the scheme’s shortcomings.

At around 21 acres, the site of the demolished Brighton Railway Works was the biggest redevelopment opportunity in town. The engineering works beside Brighton Station opened in 1842 and closed in 1958 after years of gradual decline. Redevelopment didn’t begin until 2004.

My first real memory of the area, from 2003, was of the comical protesters who tried to stop it from being rejuvenated. There was some sort of campaign banner alongside an entrance that featured small painted domes which, I was told, originally came from the Palace Pier.

I worked for Parsons Son & Basley, the firm that managed the site, and recall being offered the 7am-9am car park shift. I jumped at the chance as it meant that each day, for just two weeks, I was paid more than my daily wage to sit in a little booth and take cash (£4 per car, I think) from users of a makeshift car park on the derelict land. Staring at the drab Mocatta House to the south for all those hours made me realise that we could do so much better than that and the other large commercial buildings that already dominated the area. David Mocatta, the famous Victorian architect and namesake of that unremarkable modern yellow-brick behemoth, would have agreed.

I recently met up with architect Paul Zara who is a fan of elements of the scheme for a tour of the One Brighton block in the approximate centre of the development. I was actually blown away by what I saw because we went straight up to the roof of One Brighton’s roof and admired the panoramic views across Brighton. There are other good bits dotted around the New England Quarter such as the Greenway, the southern and western facades of Gladstone Row, and the interior of Bellerbys College but this is little consolation.

The New England Quarter suffers for its poor treatment of public areas. During the day, there is nowhere suitable to sit down for a chat. At night, it is so desolate that you wouldn’t want to. Fleet Street is too busy. Stroudley Road is too quiet. There is no sense of community. I do wonder if anybody there knows their neighbours.

Perhaps the hotel and residential accommodation that are soon to be built on Block J will be the key.

Bellerbys College

Intertwined amongst my interest in the architecture of Bellerbys College is a fascination with major projects generally and a curiosity over the success of the New England Quarter in particular.

Bellerbys College (their missing apostrophe, not mine) is an international school that specialises in the teaching of English and other subjects. It began in Hove in 1959 at 44 Cromwell Road under a different name and was later named after Robin Bellerby who became principal in 1980. Before the move to Brighton, other buildings around Hove had been purchased including Park House on the Old Shoreham Road.

Bellerbys Brighton was built just to the north of Brighton Station as Blocks L-M of the New England Quarter, which has been under construction since 2004. Many of the thousands of people who see Bellerbys from the train every day no doubt mistake the building for the neighbouring Jurys Inn (again, their missing apostrophe, not mine). With white render and crisp corners, the buildings are indeed similar but, unlike Jurys Inn, Bellerbys has no exterior signage – and one quite remarkable interior.

I was recently shown around by Julian Vilarrubi who teaches art on the building’s second floor. It is from there and above that some of the campus’s best qualities can be appreciated as the views from these upper levels are amongst the city’s finest. The London Road Viaduct, Hanover, Sussex Heights and the Palace Pier can each be seen in all of their glory. The best outlook is actually from a staircase on the south-west corner which overlooks the mouths of Brighton Station’s three arches.

There are views inside too. The top levels are best reached by stairs rather than by lift as this means experiencing the building’s breathtaking five-storey-high atrium. It reminds me a little of Relativity by M. C. Escher which features a great entanglement of stairs and landings. The height of the drop adds serious excitement to what would simply be a walk along a corridor in a normal building. The various quirky spaces within this core section are warm and friendly. Splashes of colour throughout, and acres of solid wood, see to that.

There is no doubt that Bellerbys is a resounding success, as a building and as a business of which the city should be proud. I am not so sure about the rest of the New England Quarter though. Further investigation and a column will follow.

33a Brunswick Square Deeds

33a Brunswick Square is a whole hidden house, not a flat as the letter in its name suggests. It is situated in the north-west corner of the square, tucked out-of-view to the side of No. 33.

I first saw No. 33a when my friend, the late Mike Robins, lived there. When I have written about it before, it has been in the context of both its unique position and also its sheer size. I’ve always been intrigued as to how such an incredible house, with a hidden front door but no front windows, could come into existence. A great pile of historic documents that were recently shown to me by resident Neale Thibaut offered some clues.

When building a large square, in this case in the Regency style, a decision must be taken on how to treat the corner buildings (there is a similar conundrum when it comes to ordering kitchen units). A diagonal façade serves No. 33 whilst a secret door within that building’s porch serves No. 33a behind. No. 33a was certainly not original to the square but I do wonder whether it was built on or split from No. 33.

There was certainly a school in one or both of the houses from the 1830s until the 1890s. The fee was 100 guineas per year (with an extra 6 guineas for laundry). The use had certainly changed by 1898, at which point a complaint was made about a hotel being in operation. Again, it is hard to tell if this applied to one or both. The strange thing is that the deeds suggest that the current No. 33 is smaller and a different shape, and that nothing existed on the spot where No. 33a currently sits. It is strange because street directories of the day give the names of No. 33a’s residents.

John Bacon, a local property developer who bought No. 33a in 2004, remembers it well. He purchased it as four large flats that had each been divided into bedsits from the resident landlady who had owned the building since before the Second World War. After much restoration work, it ended up as seven self-contained flats with three new quite special houses (61-65 Brunswick Street West) in the large garden behind.

Despite Neale’s great efforts in reading the deeds and visiting Brighton Museum’s Local History Centre, we just have more unanswered questions – so our research continues.

Argus Building

Many know the Argus Lofts in the North Laine area of Brighton as a past home of The Argus newspaper but the operation actually started on North Street nearby. It was in 1880 that the first edition was published – at a time when carrier pigeons were used to collect the news from all around Sussex.

The move from North Road into what was then Robinson’s printing works in the North Laine took place in 1926. It was not until 1992 that the newspaper moved into the current premises on Crowhurst Road in Hollingbury. At a glance, the massive yet inconspicuous building appears to be just one storey high but this is an illusion. The building cascades down the hill, away from the road, so most of its great bulk is hidden away. I was lucky enough to be shown around by reporter Tim Ridgway who was unlucky enough to have been reminded that he had agreed ages ago to give me a tour.

Rather than entering the building via the bridge and reception area from road level, we walked straight down the ‘editorial slope’ on the east side of the building. This leads into the massive main work area. On one side of this open plan hive of activity, the ‘Library” is a room that is stuffed with shelves which are, in turn, stuffed with manila envelopes. It is a storeroom for records on subjects and people and is exactly what I imagine the filing system in a 60s police station might look like.

We looked up my own surname and found a story from November 1989 on Kate Nemeth, a horse lover from Shoreham, and another, from July 1998, on Daniel Nemeth, a shoplifter from Third Avenue. These detailed records date back to the 1950s.

The building was actually completed in 1952 for CVA, a large engineering firm, to the designs of Wells Thorpe architects. It adapted well to newspaper use. The assembly area became the print room. The die shop became the car deck.

Now that printing takes place in Southampton, and the printing press itself is in boxes, another move may be on the cards. This might involve Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company moving in so that their Hove Station site can be developed.

A lot of space will be required, perhaps in central Brighton – at least a pigeon loft won’t be needed this time.