Brighton Belle – or are we bland?

David Robson, trustee of the Regency Society, argues that we get the buildings we deserve.

We assume that we live in a beautiful seaside city that is blessed with a marvellous architectural heritage. But how often do we really put our assumptions to the test?

Returning recently from a week in Berlin, I was struck by how scruffy, how shabby, our own city has become. In Berlin, German friends had asked me when the West Pier would be repaired and I realised that this rusting skeleton has become our trademark – the Sinking Pier of Brighton is now almost as famous as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The pier has come to symbolise our inability to cherish and care for our architectural heritage. Look around: St Peter’s, the church that dominates our main thoroughfare, is crumbling before our eyes; the proud front of Arundel Terrace is defaced with ugly additions which would have long since been torn down in any other civilised country; historic town houses such as Marlborough House and Steine House stand empty, unused and unloved; unique streets such as Oriental Place are besmirched with soil pipes, flues and broken pediments; our historic parish church sits in a barren wasteland which is home to drunks and drug dealers; the Marina, that great feat of engineering, is now little more than a supermarket floating in a sea of cars; the once-loved Black Rock swimming pool has remained an open sore for the past 30 years.

And what about our more recent architectural achievements? The buildings of real quality that have appeared in Brighton during the recent past can be counted on one hand: the Jubilee Library (which filled an ugly hole that had remained empty for some 30 years), the Children’s Wing of the Royal Sussex, the Aldrich Library at Moulsecoombe, the Van Alen building.

Of the rest there are some, including the new Amex Building, that are truly ugly but the majority are simply bland and banal. Stand at the Clock Tower, that wonderfully eccentric Victorian folly, and you are bombarded by banality on all sides. There’s the brick cliff of Queen’s Square House, the stuck-on stone of T.K.-Maxx, the blank glass curtain of Boots, the floating panels of Sports Direct and, further up, the cluttered chaos of Churchill Square.

Pause for a moment and compare these with the simple but faded Art Deco elegance of the Imperial Arcade and then walk down West Street and see how the delicate tower of St Paul’s has been mugged by a pair of inarticulate brick towers.

Walk up to the station and marvel at how a great opportunity was squandered in the development of the New England Quarter – a whole area dedicated to beige blandness and banality with not a single public space of any quality.

The city of Berlin, at the end of the Second World War, was reduced to rubble by a combination of British and American aerial bombing and Russian artillery and then languished for 30 years as a divided city. Since the Wall was torn down in 1989, Berlin has largely reinvented itself in a massive programme of renovation and reconstruction.

One symbol of the new Berlin is the Reichstag, or parliament building, which was destroyed in a fire in 1933 and has recently been restored under a new glass dome which allows spiralling visitors to peep down into the debating chamber below. Another is the Neues Museum, which was reduced to a blackened shell by allied bombing and has now been carefully rebuilt with a combination of sensitive restoration and elegant new construction.

In both cases, the architects were British – Norman Foster and David Chipperfield. Which leads one to ask why it is that great British architects leave their mark on Berlin but not in Brighton?

One answer is, perhaps, that good architects and enlightened developers have been frightened away.

Every society gets the buildings it deserves.

It is too simple to blame our architects for the banality of modern Brighton. Clearly the whole system through which we finance, plan, design, procure and build our buildings is at fault: developers want a maximum return on minimum investment and many demand the cheapest of cheap buildings; our council is too cash-strapped to take on a pro-active role in development; planning processes make unreasonable demands and cause unnecessary delays; architects are so cowed by the system that they take refuge in blandness; the NIMBYs hurl abuse at anything that offends their own sensibilities.

Together, these all conspire to grind everything down to mediocrity, ensuring that nothing as outrageous as a Royal Pavilion or a Lewes Crescent or a Birdcage Bandstand will ever see the light of day. Meanwhile, the West Pier sinks slowly, with the setting sun, into the sea.

• A version of this article appeared in The Argus on 2 January 2012

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