Monday, 23 May 2011

Urban Trawl: Brighton and Hove

It could be said, and it would be only slightly hyperbolic, that we are all Brightonians now – or at least, our governments and local councils would really rather we were. The seaside city of Brighton & Hove is a place with a radically immaterial economy of tourism, property, media and 'creativity', a city of leisure. Unlike, say, Richard Florida's other favourite British city, Manchester, it has no industrial past to uncomfortably erase; but like the cities that would desperately like to emulate it, it has a large and ignored working class population, often living in large and slightly-less-easily ignored tower blocks. Brighton and Hove were built for fashionable London on holiday, and so it remains, at least after a 'decline' when it became more proletarian. In short, there's a lot to get annoyed by. The problem, however, with maintaining a critique of the place is that it is – especially on a sunny day – so gorgeous that it's almost impossible to keep your faculties about you. In an analogous but visually very different way to Milton Keynes, Brighton is the most seductive city of the new economy.

It's also the city which has been the first to elect a Green MP, Caroline Lucas, and right by the station is something that combines the two elements of the place – harmoniously uniting right and left Brighton, if we're being extraordinarily generous. This is the grandiosely named New England Quarter, a piece of brownfield regen, fundamentally indistinguishable from any other up and down the country. Much of it is in the anonymous, render/wood/metal balconies style, with the latter amusingly skimpy, implying some very svelte occupants; the central tower, Fielden Clegg Bradley's 'One Brighton', has a marginally clearer, more convincing presence. The difference, as ever, is in the marketing. At one corner is 'Brighton Junction – an ethical property centre'. Their italics, and their protesting too much. Ethics in the development are expressed through underground carparks hidden under Sainsbury's, Subway and the 'public realm' – and some extensive gating. 4 x 4s glower their way down the surrounding roads. Then you come to one of the city's many council tower blocks, a thin, stock brick thing with, unforgivably, an expressed, concrete car park on its ground floor. Drive, by all means, but be discreet.

From there you can walk through North Laine and Sydney Street, whose bright colours and painted shops are a centre of the city's alternative culture, with some undeniably rather intriguing shops among all the sub-Carnaby Street nostalgia, which is best signified by the prominent sign 'Madcap Items £20'. North Laine's hip-bourgeois nature has recently been accompanied by something more square-bourgeois – Bennetts' Jubilee Library, and the several blocks around it. The Library itself is quite a fine building, especially for a PFI and Design & Build contract. Its elegance is almost entirely down to neat proportions and the decision to clad much of it in deep blue glazed tiles, a subtle nod to one of the city's Victorian materials, which fits the general raffishness very nicely. Somewhat less successful is the obligatory thwacking great atrium, which is visible on the façade via a blue glass expanse soiled by the city's anti-social seagulls. The blocks around, housing the usual middle class chains – Wagamama, etc – are inoffensive, if bland, so it's the offsetting that offends – the notion that a library must be justified by lots of surrounding retail. As ever, the entrance to Pizza Express is far more visible than that of the Library itself.

Fashionable Brighton is not nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. In fact, the element of the city that really convinces, that saves it from completely irredeemable smugness, is the tourists' seafront promenade. One route takes you past irksome retail old (the Lanes, where it is acceptable to call a shop 'Pretty Eccentric') and new (CZWG's Black Lion Street, actually a rather imaginative bit of infill which nonetheless houses a Jamie Oliver restaurant). Then you get to this thing, somewhere between a Regency utopia and a Brutalist Miami, defined most magnificently by a feeling of space and air without parallel in the UK, with a wide, wide boulevard, spacious streets and lawns, and the Channel spread out before you. It's glorious, and that glory is given particular pathos by the ruins of the West Pier, a haunting reminder of the city's persistent hint of the sinister.

Giant towers are planned and seemingly shelved at each end – a monster hotel by Wilkinson Eyre to the east, an observation tower by Marks Barfield to the east. Frank Gehry's plans for Hove, meanwhile, seem not so much shelved as permanently cancelled, although that's no great tragedy, as they bore about as much relation to his best work as Gropius' Park Lane Playboy Club did to the Dessau Bauhaus. As it is, modernism is represented by some still controversial structures. One scheme which is surely due some critical rehabilitation is the Brighton Centre and the accompanying Odeon designed by Russell Diplock Associates. Both sit at the point where Brutalism and futurist kitsch meet, and are all the better for it, with the Odeon's expressionistic roofline a particular thrill. Even more hated by custodians of Brighton are the several Seifert schemes that crowd behind Waterhouse's aggressively red, late Victorian Hotel Metropole and the fussy, part-bombed Grand. There is one unforgivable element to them, where Seifert saws off Waterhouse's skyline, replacing it in the clumsiest, lamest manner possible – but the irregular grids of the Seifert towers are very smart, both up close and from a distance, adding a metropolitan skyline drama which, along with the council high-rises, stops the townscape from becoming a mildly more seedy seaside version of Bath.

The other major modernist scheme creates a demarcation between Brighton and Hove, both in terms of scale and style, but it's of far from local significance. Wells Coates' 1936 Embassy Court, recently and thoroughly restored, follows on the ideas of his experimental Isokon housing in London, employing its ideas on a massive scale. It might have been built as serviced flats for light entertainers, but it's clear here how much Coates was indebted to Constructivism, especially Moisei Ginzburg's Narkomfin building. The seaside front is clean and classic, but lurk round the corner and the building's circulation is on spectacular display, with strongly, bulgingly modelled access decks and staircases, so lush and physical that you feel you could eat them – it supports Manfredo Tafuri's one-time description of Coates as a 'proto-brutalist'. It's one of the most remarkable blocks of flats in the country, but there's several of its era in Hove.

But first you pass through Brunswick Town, which is as complete an expression of Regency luxury aesthetics as Embassy Court is of the '30s (or is it the other way round?), with its often breathtaking Crescents and squares. Looking at the way the bow-windowed terraces sweep down the hills to the sea, you sense that here there was a real seriousness about high-design, high-density living combining with hierarchy, profit-making and speculation. It's the Urban Renaissance of it's day, except immeasurably more confident and proud in architectonic execution. Go up the hill a bit from here, and you find much more. If Bethnal Green is a museum of working class housing, Hove is a museum of the luxury flat. Every permutation is on show. The clipped, Jeeves & Wooster neo-Georgian of Wick Hall, now a Buddhist Centre ('Meditate in Brighton', it suggests - a new, more pious approach to self-help); the Crittall Windows and wave motifs of Furze Court, with additional Bupa centre; Eric Lyons' typically elegant Span Development at Park Gate; or St Anne's Court and Beresford Court, outré combinations of traditionalism and 30s' metropolitan display. The former has a blue plaque informing us that Lord Alfred Douglas once lived here. As well he might.

Interestingly, and sadly, the newer blocks of flats do exactly the same thing, on exactly the same low-to-mid-rise scale, for exactly the same kind of clientèle – Hove's sleepy and/or elderly, and ex-Londoners – but are so dramatically clumsy and poorly made by comparison. There's Landsdowne Court, with blocky red terracotta cladding and strikingly lumpen, cheap-looking balconies – it could be in any number of less favoured, less wealthy towns. The blocks next to Beresford Court are especially alarming – here, perhaps as some consequence of the winds coming in off the sea, the wood panelling has deteriorated so rapidly that it looks burnt. Or in fact, it looks like the boarding councils use to deter squatting. It's all indicative of one of the stranger things for which the last 30 years can be indicted – that often, even the luxury housing was poor. It seems to sum up a few truths about this attractive but impressively hypocritical city. But at least from here, you can walk down to the seafront, take in those winds and that space, and pretend that everything's going to be alright.