Placemaking consultant Jim Roberts speaks to DJ Norman Cook about his beloved Brighton and the buildings and places that make it special
Norman Cook was born in Bromley and raised in Surrey, but in Brighton – where he originally moved to study at what was then Brighton Poly – he has achieved a fusion of personality, portfolio and place that few musicians manage.
He lives and works in the city; he owns property and businesses there; he serves on boards and supports local charities; he splashes it on album covers and raves about it in interviews. If he owns a little piece of Brighton, then Brighton owns a bigger piece of Norman Cook, just as Liverpool owns the Beatles or Salzburg owns Mozart. Everyone in Brighton knows someone who knows someone who’s mates with Fatboy Slim. It’s that kind of place.
Brighton’s a place where people come to be themselves, to lose themselves. A place to be frivolous and jolly
It’s also possible for anyone living in Brighton to bump into Norman Cook on the London-to-Brighton route and get into an amiable conversation about trains. That’s how I learnt that Fatboy Slim studied human geography, specialised in the history of tourism, and has a passion for architecture, heritage and urban development. If his music career hadn’t taken off he could have worked for me at Fourth Street, where we specialise in tourism and placemaking.
We arranged to meet at Cook’s Big Beach Café near Hove Lagoon. Blue sky, bright sun, and his first comment set the tone: ’Nothing beats Brighton on a day like this.’
Cook has lived here more than 30 years and has an infectious enthusiasm for the city. Despite his global reputation, it’s the passionate local resident that I’m keen to speak with. What is it about Brighton that provokes so much loyalty? Why are people so emotionally invested in the place?
‘It’s a place where people come to be themselves, to lose themselves,’ he says. ‘A place to be frivolous and jolly.’
He adds: ‘We still have the Prince Regent to thank for Brighton’s uniqueness.’ The Royal Pavilion is a testament to the quirkiness that is baked into Brighton’s DNA.
He has a nuanced take on the value of architectural icons such as the early 19th-century Royal Pavilion and the 21st-century British Airways i360.
On the one hand, he acknowledges that ‘they aren’t for us residents. They’re for visitors.’ On the other, he isn’t too fussed about whether people actually visit them. He’s more interested in the influence they have on perceptions of the city. ‘Frankly, it doesn’t matter how many people go up and down the i360,’ he says. ‘But it might just be the reason a Berliner chooses Brighton over Barcelona for his dirty weekend.’
Cook himself lived 16 years in Brighton before he ever went into the Royal Pavilion. ‘Baz Luhrmann was staying at my house and dragged me to it,’ he recounts. ‘Until then, I didn’t even know you could go inside.’
The i360 is at once a symbol of absurdity and modernity. It’s got Brighton written all over it
Shifting and shaping people’s perceptions of a place is hard, but it’s important. As he’s travelled the world and spoken to people, Cook has noted that ‘until recently, the perception of Brighton has been largely dominated by two things: Brighton Rock or Quadrophenia.’
That is changing. A key event in Brighton’s recent history was Fatboy Slim’s Big Beach Boutique II in 2002. Who could predict that 250,000 people would descend on Brighton for the night? The immediate publicity focused on the negatives. The railway couldn’t cope; the town was trashed. But as the storm subsided, the benefits began to crystallise. In one glorious night of big beats and bright lights, Brighton became its old self again – a little bit cool, a little bit bonkers, a little bit edgy, a whole lot of fun.
In summer 2018, Fatboy Slim DJ’d to 120 people in the i360. But times have changed, and in the larger scheme of things perception matters more than box office. This intimate airborne gig was broadcast live across the internet and has already been streamed by more than 2.9 million people on YouTube.
The i360 has divided opinion in Brighton, but Cook is obviously a fan. ‘It is at once a symbol of absurdity and modernity,’ he says. ‘It’s got Brighton written all over it. It’s a bit like what the Space Needle was for Seattle. When I first visited, the residents hated it. They called it “the syringe”. It wasn’t until its silhouette became the iconic logo for the hit sitcom Frasier, that people began to love it and appreciate it for what it was. It was what helped put Seattle on the international map and encouraged tourists to visit.’
For all his appreciation of symbolism and the importance of iconic buildings, he resists any attempt to badge or brand the city or reduce it to a logo or a strapline. I ask if Brighton should bid to be named a UNESCO City of Music, but he thinks that’s too limiting.
‘It would be doing Brighton an injustice,’ he says. ‘You can’t pigeonhole the city. It excels in so many of the creative sectors, not just one. Brighton is unique and it’s this uniqueness that makes it so appealing.’
Cook is reluctant to draw comparisons with other towns – especially the other seaside resorts with which it is usually lumped. ‘Brighton got the jump on other seaside towns like Margate and Blackpool,’ he says. ‘Brighton was doing something different and doing it first, and so it became fashionable. It was like the St Tropez of England.’
Brighton’s roots as a destination are in the same ‘medicinal tourism’ that drove the development of spa towns like Bath and Tunbridge Wells. Today, though, it’s so cool and contemporary – with a subversive edge and a new, techy culture – that San Francisco and Ibiza spring to mind. Yet he always comes back to the same central point: ‘Brighton is Brighton. There is no comparison.’
Beyond the quirky architecture and the independent spirit, Cook maintains that Brighton is defined by its beach.
‘It must be one of the top 10 most recognisable beaches in the world,’ he says. ‘even though it’s one of the worst for what you can actually do on it. You can’t play football on it, like Rio, and you can’t surf on it, like Bondi. You can’t even build a sandcastle.’ Despite this, ‘the beach is why so many people come to Brighton’.
Cook titled his dissertation From Bathing Machines to Space Invaders: the changing face of tourism in Brighton. ’But unlike Blackpool,’ he says, ‘which stayed with the space invaders and slot machines, Brighton evolved’ — and that is what has made the city so eclectic and interesting.
The backdrop to the famous shingle beach is a seafront whose architecture ranges from the sublime to the surreal; from grand Regency squares to the ‘absurd pole’ of the i360, by way of ornate hotels, Art Deco gems and half-hearted Brutalism. In Cook’s words, it looks ‘all higgledy-piggledy and nice’n’Brightony’.
Ever since the Prince Regent transformed a lowly farmhouse into his party palace, architecture has helped create the city’s distinct identity. Nearly 100 Grade I and II* listings attest to this. The seafront, in particular, is a perennial battleground between the forces of innovation and conservation. According to Cook, ‘The seafront is what attracts and divides public opinion in equal measure. But it is the seafront that is so important to Brighton’s future.’
I would love to have seen Frank Gehry’s crumpled towers materialise to replace the King Alfred Leisure Centre
This is a constant dialogue. It needs to change. It mustn’t change. It’s trapped by its own history and heritage. It’s in thrall to the latest fad or trend. It’s a soaring success. It’s a monstrous failure. That’s the seafront. That fiery debate and passionate sense of ownership is all very ‘nice’n’Brightony’ too.
The non-conformity that defines Cook’s music comes through in our talk about Brighton and its architecture. For any recent controversy, I can’t predict which side of the argument he’ll take up. He can see it from either perspective and will argue both sides before taking a view.
Take Embassy Court. Arguably one of Britain’s finest Modernist buildings, it suffered from decades of neglect. ‘People called it Little Beirut,’ says Cook. ‘It was like a war zone.’ Yet he is thankful that it was saved by its leaseholders and lovingly restored. ‘It’s great how the same building and the same architecture can attract such differing opinions when people understand and appreciate its history and purpose,’ he says.
He supported a crowdfunding effort to save and restore Madeira Terrace. ’That heritage is irreplaceable,’ he says. ’Once it’s gone, that’s it. You can’t ever get it back.’
He is less fond of the Brighton Centre event and conference venue, which he calls ‘a rotten relic’, while of the King Alfred Leisure Centre, he says: ‘I would love to have seen Frank Gehry’s crumpled towers materialise to replace it … Although I might have had a different opinion if it was my sea view being interrupted.’
Cook’s latest contribution to the arts scene in Brighton is to sponsor one of 50 snail sculptures recently installed throughout the city. Fast Forward The Mixtape Snail, designed by local street artist Cassette Lord, is the last thing I see as I leave the Big Beach Café. For all the strong opinions we’ve shared, I’m left with one overriding impression that is simply beyond debate. He’s right: nothing beats Brighton on a day like this.
Jim Roberts is a director at destination consultant Fourth Street