Brighton ‘has turned a corner’
After years of projects failing to break ground, Tom Ravenscroft finds a council taking initiative and optimism in the sea air for Brighton and Hove
The last time Brighton and Hove appeared on the architectural radar was when Frank Gehry’s radical waterfront towers were scrapped in 2008. Earlier this month, almost five years to the day after the mixed-use scheme dubbed ‘tin can alley’ was abandoned, the council issued a new call for partners to develop the site.
Described by Cathedral Group’s Martyn Evans as a ‘scheme that hangs over all developers in Brighton’, the Gehry tower is just one of a raft of recent high-profile schemes that have failed to come to fruition in the city. Wilkinson Eyre’s Brighton Marina project stalled, Make’s redevelopment of the Brighton Centre failed to materialise (AJ 27.07.09), LCE Architects’ Hove Station (AJ 06.07.12) went on hold and Marks Barfield’s i360 lost its funding. Meanwhile the long-awaited Brighton International Arena on the Black Rock site was finally abandoned and this summer AHMM’s Anston House redevelopment failed to win planning.
Although some of these projects were victims of the recession, long before 2008 the city had a reputation as a hard place to get things built. This is partly due to its physical constraints.
As Lap Chan, director at Brighton-based Morgan Carn Partnership Architects says, ‘There is a lack of land because of the historic environment and the fact that the city is bounded by the sea and the Downs’. However, many architects including Chan point to a ‘very risk adverse’ council as holding back architecture in the city.
People ‘misconstrue an interesting city for interesting architecture’, says University of Brighton lecturer Gemma Barton. Barton describes the city’s relationship with London as ‘like having a twin’. She adds: ‘It’s great to have the company, but you are in constant competition’.
Construction in the last boom period was about short-term profit
Manser Medal winner Carl Turner, a former lecturer at the University of Brighton, explains further: ‘Construction in the city over the last boom period was developer driven and was about short-term profit based on inflated house prices, with London commuters distorting the local market.
‘In general very little in the way of memorable places or buildings have been created: I struggle to name any and I know the city well.’
Rab Bennetts of Bennetts Associates who designed the Jubilee Library (AJ 13.10.2005), one of the few recent stand-out pieces of architecture in the city, says that: ‘Like Edinburgh, Brighton is known to be a difficult place to getting planning, it has a tremendous heritage and people quite rightly have high demands’.
Source: Peter Cook/View
However, the protection of Brighton’s historic fabric may be to the detriment of new high-quality architecture in the city. ‘Buildings like The Pavilion, Embassy Court, Saltdean Lido and the Regency terraces are the gems in the city and they were innovative in their time,’ says architectural photographer Jim Stephenson. ‘When I was working in practice my feeling was that good architecture was hamstrung by an ineffective planning system and a series of overzealous neighbourhood groups.’
This is a sentiment shared by many architects working in the city. Olli Blair, director of Hove-based ABIR Architects, believes that: ‘Brighton has become a conservative place, where no one wants to see anything interesting built.’ He puts the blame squarely on the council saying that there is ‘clearly something broken with the planning system’.
There is a feeling that development in the city is a highly politicised process. ‘There is a good deal of nimbyism in Brighton and Hove. While planning committees are supposed to be non-political, they would only be human to be influenced by it, especially in a minority administration where in some wards every vote counts,’ says LCE Architects director Nick Lomax.
He explains: ‘Brighton and Hove must be unique in that the last three administrations have been formed from different parties, consecutively Labour, Conservative and Greens. In this situation every decision has political ramifications.’
Yet Caroline Stephens, vice chair of RIBA Sussex, points to improvement in the city: ‘A few years ago the situation was dire, architects’ livelihoods and businesses were being directly affected by the slow and arduous planning department. Now we are seeing a faster process and a tentative dialogue with an informal architects advisory panel.’
Duncan Baker Brown, a director of Sussex-based BBM Sustainable Design, feels that the planners have struggled at the coalface, but believes this is improving.
The city hasn’t quite understood how to procure good design
He says: ‘They are enlightened at the top, but it appears that the planning department has been stretched. The city hasn’t quite understood how to procure good design, but I think this is starting to change.’
Indeed, in the words of Paul Zara, director of Conran & Partners, Brighton ‘has turned a corner’.
He explains: ‘Over the past five years when a scheme got planning people didn’t think it would happen, but now people believe that things will actually happen’.
This positive outlook is shared by Martin Randall, head of Planning & Public Protection, Brighton & Hove City Council, who points to ‘a series of high-profile development projects in the city and more in the pipeline that illustrate a real confidence by investors in Brighton and Hove’.
‘Good examples include [Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’] flagship One Brighton scheme and a series of successful developments that have collectively delivered the wholesale redevelopment of the New England Quarter’, he says. One scheme that the council is very publicly backing and has offered support through prudential borrowing is Marks Barfield’s i360.
After considering locations including Manchester, Oxford, Cardiff and Edinburgh, the practice chose to build the ‘son of the London Eye’: an observation pod that rises to 141m opposite the burnt out West Pier. ‘A lot of people complain about planning in Brighton, but our experience has been very good,’ says David Marks. ‘Having a robust planning process in place is good for a city, and if you follow the procedures then planning is a necessary hurdle’.
Although the i360 was put on hiatus during the global financial crisis when funding was pulled from the project Marks is ‘confident it will go ahead’. Work has started on site and the practice, which is also the visitor attraction’s developer, with the council’s backing are in a process of putting together a revised funding package. ‘The future of Brighton is looking pretty good. We are investing a lot of money in the city and think that it will pay off,’ he says.
The future of the West Pier itself is still unsure. The West Pier Trust that owns the ruin, which burnt down in 2003, as well as the i360 site, intend to release a brief for development in the new year.
Marks’ enthusiasm for the city is shared by Cathedral Group, which has just submitted a planning application for a £100 million development in the former municipal market on Circus Street. John McAslan + Partners’ proposal for this long-term unused site went into hibernation during the crash, but Evans is confident the revived mixed-use scheme designed by Shedkm will actually happen. ‘Brighton is a city that knows what it wants. For us developers, this is the best thing as we need to know where we stand and we know where we stand,’ he says.
Although Evans believes that ‘large developments are always politically sensitive’, Cathedral Group see potential in the city. He believes that developers will be looking for more work: ‘We definitely see opportunities for future schemes in Brighton and we are focusing a lot of attention on the city.’
Indeed, Cathedral Group was one of many developers present at the King Alfred replacement developer day held earlier this month. Although the Circus Street and i360 projects have been reborn, and many of the city’s other long-term empty sites are being seriously revisited, it is this ill-fated site that still hangs over the city.
If the council can procure a high-quality piece of architecture for this site then maybe development in Brighton can finally break out of the shadow of Gehry’s towers.
The fate of Brighton’s high-profile schemes
- Jubilee Library, Bennetts Associates and LCE Architects (complete)
- One Brighton, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (complete)
- Circus Street, Shedkm (in planning)
- i360, Marks Barfield (on hold)
- Brighton Marina, Wilkinson Eyre (uncertain)
- Preston Road, AHMM (on hold)
- Hove Station, LCE Architects (on hold)
- King Alfred, Gehry Partners (abandoned)
- Brighton Centre, Make (abandoned)
- Black Rock, Brighton International Arena (abandoned)