Archive for June, 2014

Hove Town Hall Works

Residents of Hove love to hate their Town Hall. Dark and fortress-like, it is certainly ugly, and is still suffering from the removal of many of its best bits. I am a fan though and am most concerned at council plans to chop it around.

To set the scene, I campaigned hard back in 2012 to persuade the council to sell their King’s House headquarters on the Hove seafront. The principal reason was that I felt that such a valuable site should be put to residential use. Also, a sale would force the council to consolidate office space (perhaps at what was an empty Co-op on London Road) and raise valuable funds that could go towards a new Black Rock or King Alfred. After a fight, the council agreed to sell – so far, so good.

It is estimated that £9 million could be generated from the sale of King’s House. If other offices were sold, and staff relocated, new premises could be found in a less valuable, more accessible, spot such as Preston Road. A huge surplus could then be put towards leisure facilities or something else equally vital. The value of public assets would increase.

Instead, the council is proposing a £16 million refurbishment of Hove Town Hall and has actually turned down a proposal for a much-needed new primary school at the rear of King’s House from Cllr Andrew Wealls.

Although Hove Town Hall is ugly, it is a building of architectural integrity. Such thought was put into all manner of details by its architect, John Wells-Thorpe. After a fire tragically destroyed the original building in 1966, a group of dignitaries was flown to Holland to see the best of what modern architecture had to offer. The influence of Hilversum’s town hall of 1934, designed by Willem Marinus Dudok, is clear.

I adore Hove Town Hall’s Derbyshire spar concrete and its bronzed Spectrafloat glass, and I particularly mourn the loss of the tropical garden that once graced the entrance foyer. Also destroyed was an ‘undercroft’ on the Church Road side and a Japanese courtyard garden in the middle. Never built was a tower above the main entrance.

Hove Town Hall should be modified. Shops should go on the ground floor and its original tower could be added. But blowing £16 million of public money without consolidating other assets on an incredibly-damaging yet minor upgrade really is bad business.



West Pier Arches

The renovation of the historic seafront to the west of the Palace Pier, encapsulated by the opening of the Brighton Fishing Museum in 1992, is one of the tourism success stories of modern Brighton. But the area around the West Pier has languished ever since its decaying arches were boarded up in 1993.

Encouragingly, a complete rebuild of the 26 leaking 1880s arches to the west of the West Pier has just been completed after a year of careful thought and hard graft. They are intended for artists and other creative-types, and will no doubt assist the forthcoming i360 in totally transforming this part of the beach and Preston Street above.

It is easy to forget that the seafront arches were principally built to hold up a new road/pavement when the coast road was extended over the low chalk cliffs. Leon Bellis, Senior Engineer at Brighton & Hove City Council, along with C. J. Thorne as principal contractors, Amey as engineers and Solar as architects, have completely rebuilt the arches (which Leon treats as ‘a bridge’) in an updated version of their original form.

A whole set of new bricks from Ibstock has been made and carefully pieced together to create a gleaming new façade. Above, new railings, slightly taller than the originals, have been cast. Brighton’s heraldic dolphins, which are obscured by paint along the rest of the seafront, stand proud and obvious. Brand new doors and windows in Iroko, a hardwood from tropical Africa, have been painstakingly designed (without originals to go by) and made by Seth Evans Joinery – whose work with photographer Paul Fletcher drew my attention to the project generally.

The new arches should be waterproof for 50+ years and have a design life of 120+ years. They can take loads of 40 tonnes (more than a dust cart or fire engine). Blast furnace slag has been used within the arches’ high-strength concrete to increase resistance to sulphates and chlorides (which, perhaps unintentionally, is also an eco feature).

The new units consist of two arches apiece and have an industrial feel inside. I particularly like it that the 1880s brick wall behind has been left exposed and that the concrete shuttering lines on the ceilings are a deliberate feature.

I’m looking forward to the units being filled quickly – and the units to the east of the West Pier being completed so that I can get exploring.

Joinery by Seth Evans Joinery for the West Pier arches in Brighton.

Joinery by Seth Evans Joinery for the West Pier arches in Brighton.

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

There is a certain honesty in the refurbished Ditchling Museum, which reopened at the end of last year as the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, that would have appealed to the artists and craftsmen which it celebrates.

Ditchling Museum was founded in 1985 by two elderly sisters – Joanna and Hilary Bourne – who snapped up a disused school beside the village green and pond. The sisters had known personally the many stars of the Arts & Crafts Movement who had settled in Ditchling under the stewardship of Eric Gill, the famous sculptor.

I decided to travel to Hassocks by train so that I could enjoy the pleasant walk through nearby Keymer which added to the whole experience. A tiled barn-like structure came into view first which serves as the museum’s entrance and cafe. It was once a cart shed and was in a ramshackle condition prior to the works. Friends recall it alongside portacabins prior to the refurbishment. After being stripped back and tidied up, it gleams.

Next, a subtle tiled link building, with a gorgeous modern window at its rear, takes visitors up 11 concrete steps into the main museum – into a brand new zinc-clad structure, of a similar height to the cart shed. The black zinc stands out for the way that it fits in – and its 15ft-high west-facing window is incredible. It is instantly apparent, inside and out, that something magical has been carried out by Adam Richards Architects, the firm that was responsible for this project.

Eric Gill, whose work includes distinctive sculptures on 55 Broadway (the headquarters of Transport for London) and the BBC’s Broadcasting House, moved to Ditchling in 1907 and formed the Guild of St Joseph & St Dominic with a band of fellow religiously-minded artists. If ‘Guild’ wasn’t a play on his name then it should have been. Other members included Hilary Pepler and Dunstan Pruden whose work is displayed throughout the museum. Not a member, but connected, was the calligrapher Edward Johnston, who designed the typeface and symbol of the London Underground.

Honesty in architecture was key to the Arts & Crafts Movement. The principle goes hand in hand with being proud of materials that are used. It means picking ingredients that don’t have to be hidden away. In modern times, perhaps this translates to exposed zinc, lime-washed glulam beams and polished concrete floors. I hope so.



North Gate House

When Brighton Museum’s Sarah Posey expertly caught a roast potato that was eager to escape my plate at a rather swish dinner party, and was kind enough to place it back on my plate inconspicuously, I knew that we would get on just fine. I was delighted therefore when our meeting led to a tour of North Gate House on the Pavilion Estate.

North Gate House is a building that most Brightonians would know if they saw it but few can recall it in conversation when asked what is situated in its tucked-away position between the Pavilion’s North Gate and Brighton Museum.

The double-fronted building consists of five-storeys, including basement and roof rooms, and began as 8 Marlborough Row as part of a terrace of nine houses. The terrace was built from 1784-1802 but was short-lived. Most of it was demolished in 1820/21 after it was purchased by agents of the Prince Regent. The building was once known as the Lord Chamberlain’s House and Guard House, and was used by Lord and Lady Hertford. It received an Indian makeover in 1832, presumably at the same time that the North Gate itself was constructed in a similar style.

The interior has been radically transformed over the years and now serves as a visitor centre for schools and offices. Many old features remain but one does have to look closely to find them. Wooden shutters and old staircases survive which is remarkable given their age. The floors are wonky but that is always to be expected. A massive range dominates the basement which no doubt originally served as a kitchen. On the ground floor, the two front rooms serve as a seminar area and school canteen.

One great room is a first floor office which overlooks the North Gate and Pavilion grounds generally. It is from here that the Royal Pavilion & Museums Foundation is run. Having gone from 900 to 5,000 members in five years, it is something of a local success story. Much of what goes on throughout the Pavilion Estate would not be possible without it.

Just as North Gate House escapes the attention of those walking by, it has also escaped the attention of many local historians. Fortunately for me, prolific Brighton expert Sue Berry details the building extensively in her book Georgian Brighton and was kind enough to help me out on some of the finer details.