Archive for December, 2013

National Theatre

We complain in Brighton & Hove that large projects take far too long to come to fruition. Schemes for Black Rock, Preston Barracks, the King Alfred, and the West Pier seem to be taking an eternity. The first proposal for a national theatre was made in 1848 – yet the National Theatre on London’s South Bank wasn’t opened until 1976. Hard hats had to be worn and no cameras were allowed on a recent behind-the-scenes tour of this foreboding building.

The National Theatre was built to the designs of Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softley alongside London’s Southbank Centre which already featured acres of exposed concrete. This no doubt softened the blow for traditionalists who may well have expected something a little less modern. It is no surprise that Brighton & Hove’s most similar offering, Hove Town Hall, opened in 1974. They really were buildings of their day – unseen before, unlikely to be seen again.

Just as I like Hove Town Hall, I am a huge fan of the National Theatre. I was going to suggest that their hard appearances make for an unwelcoming experience, which public buildings should wish to avoid, but I’m not so sure now that this is true. Just as castles and churches, with their ominous stone walls and spiky towers, are unfriendly on the outside yet secure within, both the National Theatre and Hove Town Hall evoke similar feelings.

As a fan of architecture, I think of the National Theatre as solely a building. It is easy to forget that the operation includes a large and successful theatre company (think War Horse, etc). Our behind-the-scenes tour really hit this home when meeting all manner of people, hidden away around internal quadrangles, including make-up artists, wig-makers and set-designers.

The National Theatre ha a similar name conundrum as the Dome locally. These days, what we all know as the ‘Dome’ is being marketed as the ‘Concert Hall’ within a Dome complex. The National Theatre, or Royal National Theatre as it became in 1988, actually consists of three individual auditoria – each called ‘theatre’. This no doubt confuses.

The largest of the three spaces – the Olivier Theatre – impresses most. It famously features a spinning stage that can be gracefully raised from a 20m-deep hole. The Olivier Theatre of course takes its name from Laurence Olivier, a former resident of Royal Crescent in Brighton, who was the National Theatre’s inaugural director.

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Miami Art Deco

Just as the Regency houses of Brighton & Hove had fallen out of favour by the 1930s, the Art Deco hotels of Miami were in a dreadful state of repair by the 1970s. And just as the Regency Society was founded locally to beat the bulldozer, the Miami Design Preservation League was set up to prevent districts of dilapidated, but solid, structures from being razed to the ground.

It was Barbara Capitman who had the foresight to highlight just how important Miami’s historic buildings were. 800 or so of them exist in a tightly-packed area on the foot of South Beach. They line famous roads like Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, but many aren’t in the tourist district. Most exist as simple apartment blocks, hidden away on residential streets, as I found out during a recent walking tour of the area.

Miami Beach – distinct from Miami proper – began as a series of swampy islands. It took the vision of a series of developers, including the likes of John Collins, to sculpt its current form. They cut huge channels for boat access, dredged the bay and then used the spoil to construct new islands.

The Art Deco buildings are typically three storeys high and three bays wide with ABA symmetry. The high central bay owes its styling to the ancient Egytians. ‘Eyebrows’ above the windows keep the rooms in shade. Just as a handful of architects, including Charles Busby and Amon Henry Wilds, were responsible for much of Regency Brighton & Hove, just four architects, including L. Murray Dixon and Henry Hohauser, built most of Art Deco Miami.

Although many would call Brighton’s Embassy Court ‘Art Deco’, it should really be described as ‘Moderne’. ‘Deco’ is an abbreviation of ‘Décoratifs’ after all and Embassy Court could hardly be described as decorative. Miami though has no problem using the term for its streamlined, cruise-liner-inspired, offerings.

What is particularly interesting is that the bright pastel colours for which the buildings are famous weren’t added until the 1980s. Each was white or cream originally. There are several theories on where the idea for colour actually came from, Our tour guide though suggested that the New Wave styling of Miami Vice was the inspiration.

I think that it was simply a 1980s thing, drawn from many sources. It’s nice to forget it but the Royal Pavilion was painted in bright colours too at that time.

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Hove Club

Plans for a detached and Dutch-gabled members’ club resembling Kew Palace were approved on 3rd September 1896.

The gentlemen’s club began in 1882 on Grand Avenue as Hove Reading Rooms and had become the ‘Hove Club’ by the time that its new purpose-built home opened on Fourth Avenue in 1898.

Not dissimilar in style to the old Hove Town Hall of 1882, and even Brighton’s Metropole Hotel of 1890, the Hove Club features red brick from Keymer with Bath stone dressings. Terracotta was considered but ruled out on cost grounds. Unlike other buildings on the Willett Estate, the Hove Club features a large garden to the (south) side. The plot is not deep though as Albany Mews meanders behind.

Inside is the quintessential classy retreat – the embodiment of all that Hove should be. The ground floor divides into a series of large, high-ceilinged, function rooms. In recent times, marble in the hallway was discovered beneath modern flooring. What’s missing is the staircase, and this omission is key to the building’s survival.

The first floor was annexed during the 1970s and turned into a casino. By renting out the space, the Hove Club is placed on a firm financial footing which secures its longevity. The staircase still exists but is accessed from the casino entrance behind. I noticed straight away that it had been modified to face backwards, rather than forwards, by means of a subtle realignment of the lowest tier of steps.

On the other side, back within the club itself, the panelling that covers the staircase entrance actually looks as good as the original. The conversion may well turn out to be a victim of its own success in that it was done so well that any future attempt to reconfigure the building could be prohibitively expensive.

The lower parts of the roof are faced with red clay tiles but the upper expanses, I always assumed, are copper. It wasn’t until I began exploring the labyrinthine attic that I found that what I thought was tarnished copper is in fact glass painted green.

It was suggested that the ceiling of the first floor once extended all the way up to roof height but exposed masonry in the attic space and hidden original mouldings ruled that out. The purpose of the glass was actually to flood transparent panels in the first floor ceiling with light to serve billiards players below.

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