Archive for September, 2013

68 Middle Street

The spotlight really was on Middle Street, in the heart of the Old Town of Brighton, when the Rolling Stones played a gig at the Hippodrome in 1964. That building began as an ice-rink in 1897, and was converted into a variety theatre by Frank Matcham in 1901.

The Synagogue was built not long before to the designs of prolific local architect Thomas Lainson. 20 Middle Street was once home to William Friese-Greene, the inventor of cinematography. These are buildings with serious history. It is not surprising that I never even noticed No. 68.

Until recently, 68 Middle Street simply faded into the background. Its dull cream facade was designed to simply fit in. It was neither proud nor embarrassed. It had no personality at all. The building was recently introduced to Clearleft, the Brighton-based website designers, by property finder (and former Latest Homes columnist!) James Oliver. The plain building, which dates from 1969, was essentially a four-storey 6,000sqft blank canvass. Architect Martin Landivar was just the man to transform it into something special.

Thanks to the guys at Levitt Construction, the whole façade is now dark grey. It doesn’t stand out but it’s no longer hiding away either. Inside, each floor has been totally stripped out for a very honest look. Concrete floors have been exposed and polished. Walls have been lined with birch-faced ply. Cable conduits are stainless steel. Unpainted copper water pipes are proudly displayed in the toilets. Rather than taps though, there are industrial-style shut-off levers.

The biggest changes have been structural. Rather than simply looking over the sky-lights of the ground floor roof, the first floor now opens right onto a whole new roof area that has been covered in artificial turf. Best of all though is the removal of a large part of the concrete ceiling of the first floor to create a double-height atrium area.

A Ministry of Pensions building once occupied the site. This became the Astra Club in 1924. By 1926, it was the Brighton Club and then, in 1928, the Piccadilly Club. Next, it was home to Grey Coaches Ltd. The guys at Clearleft have brought fun back to the site. There is already table tennis in the large room at the back of the ground floor – but there are plans in the pipeline for a climbing wall, slide and perhaps even a fireman’s pole. See www.68middle.st for details.

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Engineerium Chimney

When I was told that the British Engineerium’s chimney had been scaffolded to facilitate brickwork repairs, I contacted owner Mike Holland within seconds for a vertical tour.

I envisaged a series of platforms around the historic tower, which can be seen from much of Hove. Providing access to each platform, obviously covered in shrouding for extra safety, would be a number of just-above-head-height steps so that the top of the 100ft obelisk could be reached in relative comfort. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Upon arrival at the Engineerium, my guest – new Latest columnist and commercial surveyor Grant Crossley – and I were greeted by a rather ominous overcast sky. This was the perfect backdrop for the single ladder, attached about one foot away from the Grade II* listed behemoth, that provided the sole means of access to a makeshift platform at the summit.

Bernie from Tarrant Specialist Earthing, the firm of contractors carrying out renovation work, clambered up at break-neck speed. This probably gave me a little too much confidence, as my first attempt at a climb was unsuccessful. I made the mistake of looking down. Grant’s bravado as Latest new boy saw him through though. I couldn’t miss out – and at least looking straight ahead on the way up gave me the opportunity to inspect the gorgeous coloured bricks during the long ascent.

Fifteen minutes was spent at the top of Hove picking out landmarks in every direction. The Engineerium began as the Goldstone Pumping Station and took its name from the Goldstone Valley below. Needless to say, there are breathtaking views across the valley but many unanticipated sights too. The nearby greyhound track is unexpectedly large, as are the hidden playing fields of Blatchington Mill School. Most surprising is the size of the Engineerium’s own cooling pond to the north of the old pump houses. And many don’t know that it exists.

Bernie explained that the platform is pulled up by hand after an individual has scaled the endless ladder to make the initial fixings. Other poles, then planks, follow. I’d love to watch next time this takes place.

A running theme in this column is hidden spaces; whether that means clock towers and crypts, or cellars and spiral staircases. The water industry provides the best of these. Reservoirs, sewage tunnels, pipes and pumping stations are each so removed from our normal lives that they delight when disturbed.

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George Street Revamp

George Street in Hove is often busy yet something seems wrong. Charity shops and empty shells are scattered throughout. The main entrance to the street – the lower end – is populated by several prominent pubs and betting shops which give a poor impression to those passing. The street gets by but it could be so much better.

The somewhat prolific elected representative for Central Hove, Cllr Andrew Wealls, sparked an idea that I put to Olli Blair and Matthew Richardson at ABIR Architects which has resulted in the drawing-up of a series of ideas – some feasible, some unlikely – that set the scene for debate on the future of shopping in Hove.

An obvious first suggestion from ABIR is an upgrade to the road’s street furniture and surfacing. This is not the first time that such a suggestion has been made. By 1909, the street had been laid with creosoted blocks and slab paving. This was perhaps its earliest improvement scheme. In 1962, a scheme to declutter George Street by Hove Town Hall architect John Wells-Thorpe was inaugurated by the Queen. Pedestrianisation was introduced in 2001 to protests from traders.

Next from ABIR comes the entirely logical and not necessarily expensive proposal for prominent entrance markers at each end of the street in the form of high-impact gateway-style structures. Their idea to remove the building on the upper east corner so that George Street can be seen from Goldstone Villas is a little more ambitious.

Several other buildings would face the chop too. Several shops in the centre of the street could be sculpted out to form a market square and other buildings lower down could be removed to create a new green space between shopping areas and St Andrew’s Church.

George Street was developed from 1852 by George Gallard (its namesake) and William Kirkpatrick as part of Cliftonville. The scheme also included Ventnor Villas and Osborne Villas. The street’s relatively small plots, which averaged 20ft across, began as artisan dwellings. 17 people were living in No. 18 in 1861. Most of the road was commercial by 1900.

There are many traders who are keen to see standards raised including Lee Saunders from Into Hair who should win some sort of award for the most striking shop make-over in Hove. The salon’s neon lights are so bright that funky new lampposts in the middle of the street would have no effect whatsoever.

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