Modernist Sussex And a Way Out of Crisis

Brighton & Hove is supposed to be a radical city. Or, at least, Brighton is. Or, at least, parts of Brighton are. It’s certainly worth noting that the Brighton Kemptown constituency has voted Conservative in the last two general elections. Either way, Brighton has a reputation – occasionally a proven one – for political unorthodoxy and resistance. In spite of this reputation, however, the place is more or less bereft of radical architecture. By radical architecture is here meant architecture which (successfully or unsuccessfully) seeks in its intended purpose, its design and its organisation of space to remake – and to remake in a progressive, sometimes revolutionary way – the lives of the people living, working and existing in its presence. There is some passable modernist building in Brighton, certainly: some good (and some not so good) housing estates, some of which display a genuine sympathy for and attention to their intended occupants. On the whole, however – and perhaps somewhat surprisingly – the best radical architecture in Sussex is to be found exactly there: in Sussex.

Outside of Brighton – a ‘People’s Republic’ as some would have it – the county of Sussex (divided in the 19th century into West Sussex and East Sussex but in all areas except administration essentially a coherent unit) is not particularly suggestive of radicalism in any concrete sense. In its modern form Sussex is broadly deserving of this characterisation – electorally it mirrors its coastal setting: a sea of blue. Its essential components are demoralised seaside resorts, quiet market towns and quieter villages: no Poplarism or Red Clydeside here. But this hasn’t always been the case: During the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, the people of Sussex rose in their droves. In the time of the English Civil War the MP for Chichester, William Cawley, was a regicide – one of those who signed the death warrant of King Charles I, the ‘man of blood’. In Lewes in the later 18th century, the famous radical Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, first began to become involved in matters of civic society. The predominantly rural county of Sussex was a centre of riot, rick-burning and running battles with the Yeomanry during the Swing Riots of the 1830s, in which wretched and oppressed agricultural labours fought tooth-and-nail for a scrap of what was every day being ripped away from them by enclosure and the rise of a mercantile agriculture. The unofficial motto of Sussex is widely held to be the phrase “we wunt be druv” – an assertion of the individual agency and independence of the rural Sussex worker against the ruling order.

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Following the advent of the 20th century, radical Sussex might be said to have withered on the vine. There were collectives of nominally progressive artists and thinkers, such as the members of the Bloomsbury Group who had gathered themselves at Charleston, but the majority of them were characterised by a conspicuous withdrawal from the realm of political thought and action. The University of Sussex might still be said to carry the torch, although its management appear to have committed to cashing in on its radical credentials for the purposes of marketing (something thankfully met with resistance by some of its staff, and certainly by a sizeable but diminishing portion of its students).

And yet, dotted along the coast, from Bexhill to Saltdean, from Falmer to Chichester (yes, Chichester) are examples of the work of architects and planners who, during the turbulent years of the first half of the 20th century, created buildings expressly designed to facilitate new and exciting forms of living: to provide environments in which the lives of the people were not secondary considerations – inconvenient intrusions on aesthetic innovation – but the founding principle from which exciting and explicitly modern structures would emerge. It must be said that many, if not all of these buildings are not the work of local architects. This is immaterial, however, because it is their situation which matters – amidst aggressively quiet villages and UKIP strongholds these buildings provide for the contemporary observer a reminder of what is available to us if we remain open to the possibilities of a radically remade future.

The best and most famous of these buildings is the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. It was built in 1934 at the behest of the socialist aristocrat (a more common paradox than you might think) and mayor of Bexhill Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr (this is a sobering reminder that despite progressive leanings much of what constituted the British left’s purportedly progressive agenda, especially during the Attlee years, maintained a distinctly patrician administrative structure). Nonetheless, the Pavilion itself is a triumph: confidently modern and emphatically public. Its architects were  Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, both internationally renowned proponents of resolutely forward-looking modernist architecture in many of its various forms. The Pavilion faces outward towards the sea in what might almost be interpreted as a gesture towards internationalism. Indeed, its enthusiastic embrace of the emphatically Continental style known as International Modernism is especially remarkable given that the style is practically unknown in Britain. Its clean, straight, industrial lines, its ocean liner-isms, its openness and navigability, its central location, its concrete and steel body, its deliberate newness – all these features are combined into a structure built explicitly for the use and leisure of the majority of visitors to Bexhill: day-trippers and bank holidayers; working people. The De La Warr Pavilion presents – like its counterpart the Saltdean Lido, 30 miles and 2 years away – a genuine faith (a naïve one, perhaps, but an admirable and still relevant one) in the capacity of industrial and technological progress to create better conditions of life for everyone.

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The De La Warr Pavilion

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Saltdean Lido

More examples exist: there is, of course, Basil Spence’s Sussex University campus – a piece of considered and thoughtful Jaoul-inspired modernism brilliantly alert to the complex and rewarding relationship between modernity and history, centered around an agora – an explicitly focal space of public gathering in which can still be seen stalls, gatherings, marches and rallies. There is Chichester Festival Theatre, a theatrically bold concrete structure which projects the theatre’s pentagonal stage – an embodiment of the public-spirited philosophy of ‘theatre in the round’ – resolutely outwards onto and beyond its public face, loudly declaring that art is not there simply to be collected in private dwellings or performed to wealthy fee-payers, but exists for the enrichment of all. There are even little houses such as the one five minutes from where I grew up in Bognor Regis, nestled amongst mock-tudor semis and monotonous bungalows. Though less public-spirited, Beach House, designed by Soviet émigré Berthold Lubetkin – a committed socialist who famously declared that “nothing is too good for ordinary people” – again asserts in its own quiet way the capacity even in dour, craven old England for radical architecture to exist in spite of it all.

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Falmer House, Sussex University

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Chichester Festival Theatre

These buildings are geographically circumscribed by a county known in our day for its conservative politics (Brighton excepted). In the same way, the current political moment seems characterised in many places by petty selfishness, aggressive ethno-nationalism, rampant misogyny and cynical pessimism. Though many of them may not have succeeded in their ambitions, the buildings of modernist Sussex still stand as challenges from history, reminders that even though our prospects seem hopeless, things have not always been as they are and need not always be as they are. A better world is possible, and it is our duty to build it.

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Beach House

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The Utter Pointlessness of Brighton’s i360

From thence to Venice, Padua, and the rest,
In one of which a sumptuous temple stands,
That threats the stars with her aspiring top,
Thus, hitherto has Faustus spent his time

The history of architecture’s preoccupation with height at various points in its development needs no introduction, and neither does the recent spate of steel-and-glass Babels springing up in London and elsewhere. Jonathan Meades’s excellent program on architecture and the vertiginous provides a beguiling introduction to an exhaustive subject, and to write a paltry blog post on it would seem to be at once a little hubristic and fairly pointless.

What does beg a brief consideration, however, is the intrusion of such an Icarian structure into a place so apparently averse to the lofty and the vertical: Brighton. The Queen of Watering Holes has recently had bestowed upon it – by that benevolent patron British Airways, no less – a monumental pole of such prodigious height that the remainder of Brighton’s seafront appears like a diminutive model town in comparison. The ‘British Airways i360’, as it is clumsily termed, has been constructed opposite Regency Square (the residents are, I’m sure, quite thrilled to have such monumental and exciting new architecture obscuring their view of the sea), on the site of the entrance to the old West Pier, now a picturesque wreck. The ominous connotations of such a monument to decay and collapse do not, however, seem to have deterred the i360’s developers (who, to their credit, have fully restored the old West Pier’s charming mid-19th century ticket office).

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The point of this engorged beam, first of all, is difficult to determine. On their website, British Airways implore the prospective i360 passenger to “take a flight to the skies and see Sussex as you have never seen it before”, ignoring the fact that for the majority of Brighton’s residents who have paid even a cursory visit to the hills and beacons of the South Downs, they most certainly have seen Sussex in this way before. Hollingbury Hill, Whitehawk Hill, Mount Caburn, Ditchling Beacon, even the top floor of the tower blocks at Whitehawk and Sussex Heights: all these vantage points provide vast and delightful vistas of Brighton and its surrounding country, to the extent that to spend vast amounts of money and resources on the pursuit of a view which (I imagine) could effectively be termed only slightly better seems at best a little pointless, at worst a tremendous waste (especially at a time in which Brighton is in the grip of a major housing crisis). The i360 is a building the only purpose of which is to facilitate what is, in effect, already possible (I should point out that, at the time of writing, I haven’t been up the i360, and if, come the time for my ascent, the sheer majesty of the hitherto inconceivable scenes arrayed before me cause me to lapse into a glorious reverie, I will willingly cede the point). There is, it must be pointed out, an argument that the i360 will be another Guggenheim, attracting tourism and cultural interest to Brighton. What this argument appears to ignore, however, is that Brighton’s very appeal lies not in polished surfaces and sumptuous set-pieces but has, since the 18th century, lain in raffishness, deviance, liminality and play. From the North Laine to St James’s Street, Brighton’s architectural soul has ever resided in archaic Victorianisms, absurdly sumptuous Regency caprices and on-the-fly vernacular dwellings. To turn it into another ‘top-end destination’ would obliterate its original attraction altogether.

Brighton is, of course, no stranger to fanciful architecture. The Royal Pavilion springs to mind as the most immediate example, and indeed its forceful whimsy was subject to considerable ridicule at the time of its construction and afterwards. The 19th century radical William Cobbett harboured particular disdain for the Pavilion, which he satirically termed ‘The Kremlin’:

“Take stalks 9 inches long, tie these round with a string three inches from the top, and put the turnip on the middle of the top of [a] box. Then take four turnips of half the size, treat them in the same way, and put them on the corners of the box. Then take a considerable number of bulbs of the crown-imperial, the narcissus, the hyacinth, the tulip, the crocus, and others; let the leaves of each have sprouted to about an inch, more or less according to the size of the bulb; put all these, pretty promiscuously, but pretty thickly, on the top of the box. Then stand off and look at your architecture. There! That’s ‘a Kremlin!’”

As I have argued before, the Royal Pavilion is by no means an innocent building. But its architecture is, ultimately, historically and (arguably more importantly) aesthetically meretricious in some sense. If nothing else, it is a genuinely beguiling building which occupies a comparatively unique position in the architectural pantheon and thus deserves to be maintained. It is difficult to argue the same for what is effectively a colossal metal pipe with a ring around it. At best it might stand as a monument to the crass tastelessness of the 21st century.

I am wary, at this point, of straying into ‘what an eyesore’ territory. Some wonderful works of modernist and Brutalist architecture in Britain have been derided and torn down because of their deliberate departure with pre-existing aesthetic norms, and architectural boldness is, I think, a principle to be clung to. But openness to the possibilities of a new and possibly strange future does not entail blanket acceptance of bad architecture – everything is and should be open to analysis, and the i360 does not stand up to analysis. It is stark without being dramatic, intrusive without being challenging, unadorned without grace and uniform without harmony. It looks like an industrial chimney, without even the Promethean theatrics of a billowing smokestack.  The i360 is not even fanciful enough to be a grand failure – rather, it will no doubt remain lodged in the earth for aeons, ferrying streams of people up and down its weathered shaft until England itself is consumed by the sea, after which it might at least act as a momentary refuge for a terrified family before it plunges them, unthinking, back into the ocean.

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“A brickbat flung in the public face” – the failed Brutalism of Edinburgh’s St. James Centre

Jonathan Meades, in a recent column on the neglected merits of postmodernist buildings, wrote that “Today, 40 years after brutalism dissipated in an assault of bien-pensant hostility and oil crises, few weeks pass without a new book or blog hymning its sublimity, energy and gravity. It is, of course, all a bit late. Much of the finest work has already been destroyed.” He’s right: lengthy is the list of perfectly serviceable – and at times masterful – late-Modernist buildings to have collapsed under the weight of collective disdain. During the later years of the twentieth century, ‘carbuncles’ were lanced, ‘concrete eyesores’ dislodged and the architectural legacy of Brutalism slowly (but not completely) eradicated from the body of British architecture.

We are hardly in unfamiliar territory here. The plight of Brutalist buildings is well-documented. Likewise, the subsequent  re-assessment and re-appraisal these buildings have enjoyed is, as Meades observes, not difficult to miss. Brutalism is suddenly fashionable. Popular blogs breathlessly laud its aesthetic principles, films by prominent directors take it as their subject (or rather lacklustre cinematic adaptations of excellent novels do) and long-neglected housing estates are subject to (questionable but illustrative) ‘renovations’. The reasons behind this – and the ramifications of it – are myriad, and doubtless dealt with better elsewhere. This is not my purpose.

In an atmosphere of what can appear at times a permanent and rigid division of opinion – philistine Tricorn-defilers on one hand, wide-eyed Trellick-fetishists on the other – it seems necessary to say: back to the buildings themselves! It is far too easy to think of aesthetic movements in the abstract, conceiving of them in terms of recurrent themes or prominent features. This is a dangerous trap to fall into – architecture is not a set of principles. Architecture is what is built. The merits of architecture must be primarily considered in terms of the material specifics of buildings – what it is like to enter a building, how it feels to walk around it, what it looks like from the street, the mode of living which it facilitates. Certainly the broader trends of an era or a movement are perfectly subject to analysis, and in such a case it is sometimes necessary to think in generalities, but if it is not grounded in built specifics – in tangible examples – then such a debate is worthless. It would be like a literary analysis without any quotes. Defenders of the school of Brutalism (myself included) would do well to remembers this as much as its detractors. The hopelessly misguided ‘Brutalism Appreciation Society’ group, popular on Facebook and inclined to heap praise on anything that even vaguely mimics the language of modernism, is a particularly irritating example of the ill-considered adulation which dogs Brutalism’s renaissance. All that glitters is not gold – all that is concrete is not unfairly condemned.

With this in mind, I want to turn to a building which, in its 40 years of life, has been almost universally despised by the residents of the city in which it stands. The St. James Centre in Edinburgh is scheduled for imminent demolition, to the apparent delight of the good Burghers themselves. In the face of such universal scorn it’s difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for the ill-fated underdog, and last week I determined to have a look around it before it vanished for good.

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The St. James Centre was designed in 1964 by Ian Burke & Martin, and completed to a slightly altered plan by Hugh Martin & Partners in 1970. It was built on the site of St. James’s Square, a collection of late-eighteenth-century terraces which over time became first a neglected slum and later a centre for the printing industry. The old square is described in the Edinburgh edition of The Buildings of Scotland as having possessed “a bleak nobility”. Demolished in 1965, in its place was built the current structure.

The authors of Edinburgh’s edition of The Buildings of Scotland – John Gifford, Colin McWilliam and David Walker – write of the new St James Centre in a tone which, while not entirely condemnatory, is by no means sympathetic. They ascribe its existence to “Mammon, devoutly wooed by a Town Council naturally eager for modern development”. They speak of its “huge intrusive bulk” and its “callously blank backside.” It is not entirely difficult to see what they mean – from Calton Hill, a prominent Edinburgh vantage point, much of Edinburgh’s New Town is rendered entirely invisible by this vast and hulking mass of concrete. At street level, the Centre is unsympathetic to the structures surrounding it, dwarfing the neat Palladianisms of the Register House and the Dundas mansion, looming over them like a golem. It is not a pretty building.

But then, who cares? ‘Prettiness’ is not a precondition for good architecture. Buildings that coddle and sooth are rarely memorable, and frequently insipid. The whole appeal of Brutalism is in its willingness to embrace the uncertain and the strange, the disconcerting and the unnerving – in its willingness to leap optimistically into the possibilities of the future, even if they appear at first to be hostile (perhaps because they appear at first to be hostile). Architectural critic Reyner Banham described Brutalism as “a brickbat flung in the public face.” The St. James Centre is not entirely lacking in such a quality – climbing a concrete staircase which projected out over the road, I felt a little of that slightly terrifying vertiginous thrill which Brutalism is so fantastically capable of producing. Looking out from the top of Arthur’s Seat I felt my eye drawn to the Centre’s gleefully obtrusive mass, rising out of the ground like the great plug of basalt from which I was viewing it. When I got up close to the rough but uniformly fluted concrete which much of the building is clad in, I felt at once a sense of vast, deep geological time – the long timescales of rock and stone – and a sense of explicit modernity, with its attendant process of uniform industrial manufacture. This was a profound and electrifying disjunction, and a reminder that Brutalism is as concerned with texture as it is with form.

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Ultimately, however, the building is a failure. Its failure lies, surprisingly, in its timidity. Its designers were afraid to engage with the possibilities of a Brutalist aesthetic which has at its heart confrontation, experiment, expression and strangeness. It is too uniform, too half-heartedly rectilinear to evoke that sense of fracture and dislocation which Brutalism is so capable of. At the same time, however, it is just irregular enough in its massing that it fails to become, as Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation is, exhilarating in its uniformityIt tries to speak in the language of Brutalism, and occasionally manages a sentence or two, but as a whole it fails to grasp the intricacies, afraid to speak too confidently for fear of being misunderstood. A tower here, a disjointed block there, but the whole adds up to little.

Inside, the imaginative capacity of the architect all but disappears – whether as a result of a later renovation or simple architectural laziness is not clear. The appeal of Brutalism is as much in heavy, sparse interiors as it is in confident, brash facades, but all that is to be found inside the St. James Centre is a series of bland shopping centre-isms, lit by a timid pitched ceiling of opaque glass. There are no experiments, no capacious echo chambers or weighty low ceilings, no sweeping curvilinear pillars or exposed stairways. Crucially, there is no bare concrete. Likewise, the King James Hotel is standard hostelry fare (the notable exception to which is the bizarre but delightfully perverse wedge-shaped hotel bar, complete with a deliberately misaligned grid of a ceiling and long, low windows). I cannot speak to the merits of the offices contained in the higher levels, having not been able to enter them. Thankfully, Gifford, McWilliam and Walker of The Buildings of Scotland can: they are “the image of system-built bureaucracy”.

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In this way, then, the St. James Centre is an important building, though not one worth battling to preserve. It is a lesson in nuance, in understanding the appeal of Brutalism as something beyond rough concrete, spiral car parks and monochrome photos. Architectural failures are often as informative as successes – their inadequacies and absences illustrate  by implication the merits of a style properly executed. The St. James Centre, though condemned to disappearance, is just such an illuminating failure.

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On ‘Old Buildings’

‘Old buildings’ are things you go out of your way to see. You might see them environed by sunset on a tourist’s Instagram account, or on a leaflet encouraging you to pay money to be shown round them. They are characters in the advertising campaigns of travel companies, crudely approximated on tea towels and mugs, thrust in your face at airports.

Sometimes they are not well known. Sometimes old buildings sit squat amongst grandeur and pomp, maligned and unobserved. Perhaps they do not conform to a particular historical aesthetic. Perhaps they are too plain. Perhaps they have been tinkered with over time so that they do not even appear old anymore, their sequestered histories still stubbornly persisting in the form of a strangely low ceiling in a back room, or the shock of a clumsy wooden beam amongst modern stucco. But they are old buildings too.

Every time – genuinely every time – I have made an effort to explore or contemplate an old building, I have been left with a slight sense of failure. It is something like yearning, or the feeling of having left something unobserved. Staring intently at the rounded arch of a Norman church, I have told myself that here is history – ancient minds devised this, ancient hands fashioned it, ancient eyes saw it. I have strained in my imagination to strip the scene of all the trappings of modernity, to imagine the building I am looking at ‘as it was’, peopling it with characters in period costume, speaking in unfamiliar ways. I have tried to imagine the consciousness which created this particular feature. Why was it beautiful or practical to them? Why did they use the materials which they did? Why so crude, or so ornate, or so ordered? The experience is like looking at an old grave. It might hold you rapt for countless reasons, but what can never be replicated is the truthful experience of its original historical moment. You can stand at an ancient grave, you can know who is buried there, you can perhaps even feel a sense of loss; what you cannot feel is the grief of those who looked at the headstone and saw the name of their friend, or their parent, or their sibling inscribed there. You can look at the design of the tombstone – unadorned, MEMENTO MORI carved at the bottom – and appreciate its purpose, the aesthetic considerations behind it, the fashion which necessitated it in the mind of the bereaved, but the peculiar contemporary subjectivity which charged its design with meaning is lost. Like a modern historian speaking an ancient, long-dead language, the content may be explicitly historical, but the moment of reception is always absolutely new.

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It might appear as though I think this is a cause for lamentation – I do not. It is precisely this melancholy – this uncomfortable but exhilarating lurch back and forth between temporalities – which makes historical buildings so fascinating. They hint at the absolute, concrete, tangible reality of history: they are there, they can be touched, inhabited, utilised. Yet at the same time they bring crashing down on you the undeniable reality of the ‘truth’ of history, which is always unreachable, discernable only through signs and hints, never to be recovered in its totality. Historical buildings, explicitly situated as they always are within the immediate, physical environment of the present moment (as opposed to, say, a historical text, which has its existence partly within the less straightforwardly concrete sphere of the imagination), achieve this vertiginous effect like no other object. An absolutely ‘authentic’, totally tangible history is held out before you in all its material solidity and in the same instant is cast away forever. Such is the particular power of built history.

What, then, is the contemporary observer left with? Just as with any historical object, what remains is a series of signs, endlessly mutable by context. What might have appeared to Victorian eyes as civic might and commercial prowess appears to modern eyes as buffoonish pomp and megalomaniacal self-confidence. This is not to disavow the importance of such a building – although its significance for us is not the same significance which it had for its creators, it may still be an interesting, beguiling, informative, unique or unnerving structure. What is important is how these buildings are treated: to freeze them in time, to insist on historical places being left entirely alone, is to indulge the fantasy that the material reality of history exists as something which we might just claw back to our present moment, if only we can arrest the passage of time. Instead, it is necessary to be open to the necessity of change and the never-ending persistence of history: to retool, to tinker – perhaps even to demolish where necessary. At the same time, it is vital to remain attentive to the particular potency of historical buildings, beyond the simply utilitarian or the profitable. Each demolition must be seen as the loss of a particular arrangement of signs. Perhaps a certain building constitutes a frequently replicated set of signs, or perhaps it might sign in newer, exciting ways with the intervention of a modern builder (though this is not a particularly frequent occurrence at  our present moment) – very well, hammer away. But perhaps a certain building does not appear frequently, perhaps its elaborate gable or its imposing façade speaks to us in a way not often seen. It is with buildings such as this with which it is of the utmost importance to be attentive and careful, even if their utility is not apparent. We must refuse to surrender to the fantasy of fallacious nostalgia, all the while remaining humbly attentive to the unique potentiality of historical objects.

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Edinburgh at Eye-Level & the ‘Heave Awa Hoose’

To begin straightforwardly – writing about architecture in Edinburgh is proving more difficult than I had imagined. Before I moved up, I had thought that I would hardly need to try, that my hitherto uninspiring blog would reach new heights, spurred on by the sheer drama of Edinburgh’s built environment. I would, I had hoped, pen kaleidoscopic visions of the vertiginous tenements; I would ruminate on Arthur’s Seat, how it shadows the city like the shattered visage of a vanquished golem; I would rail against the violent orthodoxies of the Enlightenment embodied in the strict proportions of the neoclassical style.

The thing about neoclassical architecture is, it gets repetitive very quickly, and so too did all of the clichés which I and countless others have heaped upon Edinburgh’s back over its long and storied history. Enough breathless panegyrics and enraptured blog posts have been written about Edinburgh’s ‘landmarks’ to trammel up the channels of the internet for good, and trying to write about any one recognisable structure felt like a task already doomed to failure. Besides, I never really wanted to write about this city – or indeed any other city – in such a way. For me, it’s always been the labyrinthine, the barely visible, the lurking presence of innumerable histories barely subsisting someway beneath the asphalt – the city as palimpsest. Mercifully, Edinburgh abounds in semi-legible signs, things rarely glimpsed, passages not taken, buried histories, choked but still breathing. An inexplicable gable, an ostensibly pointless alleyway, an indecipherable inscription, a strangely weathered piece of masonry. It is this side of Edinburgh – or rather, this strata of Edinburgh – which I’m hoping to begin to document here.

On the Royal Mile, halfway between the Tron Kirk and the Canongate, is a humble example of the sort of thing I mean. The actual building in question is relatively unassuming – pleasant but unremarkable Scottish Baronial in the mid-19th century style: a crow-step gable, decorative crenellation, non-specific pseudo-heraldry. Amid the innumerable Walter Scott-isms of the Old Town it would be easy to miss. But if the passerby were to pause outside it – to gawp at the window of the whisky shop which inhabits the ground floor, say – they might notice a small sculpture accompanied by an inscription, forming the base of an oriel window above the entrance to Paisley Close. The sculpture is the face of a young man, and the inscription above reads “Heave awa’ chaps, I’m no’ dead yet!”

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Although many older Edinburgh buildings have a tradition of ‘speaking’ – of carrying sometimes cryptic (and often biblical) inscriptions – the decorations on the ‘Heave Awa Hoose’ (as I later discovered it was known) are uniquely beguiling. They speak of explicitly localised history, of some latent fable embedded within the walls of the place. When I first noticed them I allowed my fantastical speculations to run wild for more than a moment – I imagined some dramatic, morbid scene; the burial of a live boy under the very floorboards, perhaps to hide forever the knowledge a horrific family secret harboured by a withering dynasty of grotesque aristocrats – shades of Poe (shades also, perhaps, of Burke & Hare).

The truth is a little less dramatic, though delightfully (and in a rare case) hardly less so. The actual course of events goes roughly as follows: Prior to the 19th century, Edinburgh’s Old Town contained a very large number of 16th and 17th century buildings which were, to put it bluntly, disintegrating. One such house stood where the ‘Heave Awa Hoose’ is now, until in 1861 it collapsed utterly, killing all 35 of its inhabitants. Amidst the clamour of the rescue effort, during which all seemed lost and not one life remained to be salvaged, a cry was heard from beneath the rubble – ‘Heave awa lads, I’m no deid yet!’*. It was the voice of young Joseph McIvor, sole survivor of the catastrophe.

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This dramatic episode ultimately gave impetus to the programme of demolition and rebuilding – beginning in 1867 with the passing of the Improvement Act – which still characterises much of the Old Town today. For good or ill, vast swathes of Edinburgh’s historic buildings were demolished, to be replaced by the deadly serious whimsy of the 19th century Scots Baronial style. In the process, young Joseph McIvor’s words were given a second significance – in the light of such sweeping architectural metamorphosis, the words ‘Heave Awa’ take on another meaning altogether.

*The spelling of the Scots word ‘deid’ and the use of the word ‘lads’ were both changed upon the making of the inscription for the benefit of English tourists.

 

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Edinburgh: First Thoughts

I’ve been in Edinburgh for almost two months, which I think warrants some sort of hurried treatise on the place, and as I’ve got the evening off I might as well see what I can muster.

On this blog, I usually deal with, at the very least, an individual building or set of buildings. Edinburgh has no shortage of such buildings – buildings abound here; they seem to spill out of corners and sprout from cracks. They tower over you like golems and burrow up underneath you like expanding subterranean fungi; they clamour to fill the entirety of the space made available to them, they crowd towards you and shrink away from you in equal measure. They are not friendly, and nor should they be. It is this characteristic which makes it difficult to concentrate on one particular building: Edinburgh appears first as an assemblage, as a seething mass of architecture, rather than a union of individual buildings.

Edinburgh, 1649

Edinburgh, 1649

I’ve been trying to tease out exactly why this image is stuck so resolutely in my head, so that when I try to think of one particular building ten others spring up immediately beside it in my mind’s eye. It could, in part, be the many-layered nature of the city. Edinburgh does not take place (if cities can be said to take place) on a flat surface, or even on a slightly uneven one, but on the raised spine of a ridge connecting two vast, looming deposits of basalt. On either side of its Old Town – its nucleus – Edinburgh falls away into the depths of the Cowgate on one side and the rush of the railway tracks on the other (the railway tracks around Waverley station, as an incontrovertible flow through which walking is impossible, take the place of a large river – indeed the glassy roof of the station itself even allows it to appear like a vast body of water). Beyond both these canyons the city rises again, collecting itself into Georgian formality in the North and sprawling vein-like into Victorian suburbs to the South. 18th and 19th century bridges and walkways range over or through the subterranean netherworlds in-between, forming layers, stratifying the city, making you feel constantly either above something or below something, creating a sense of endless proliferation and of sublime dislocation. Such a sense might be found elsewhere in Piranesi’s sketches of vast, labyrinthine prisons:

The Pier With Chains, from 'The Imaginary Prisons' (1761)

The Pier With Chains, from ‘The Imaginary Prisons’ (1761)

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the reason for this unshakeable sense of agglomeration is Edinburgh’s sense of compaction, of expanding into the scanty space available to it until nothing remains but stone piled upon stone. There is a historical root to this: in the late Middle Ages Edinburgh was, due to numerous military threats to its livelihood, compelled to construct fortified walls around its environs. In this way it protected itself from attack, but it also walled itself in. As the city expanded in the seventeenth century, the lack of space meant that building had to be done upwards rather than outwards, and so the lofty tenements of the Old Town were born. These weren’t merely slightly higher than usual – for the time in which they were built they were unconscionably high, almost grotesquely high. In his 1771 novel ‘Humphry Clinker’, Tobias Smollett has one of his characters suggest that “the surprising height of [Edinburgh’s] houses” might make it difficult for a person dwelling on their highest storey to breathe, due to the altitude. These buildings were proto-skyscrapers, a few with storeys reaching into the double figures in which nobility and pauper alike could be found to reside (the more moneyed residents tended to live on the upper floors, removed as they were from the notorious stink of the streets).  In this way, the architecture of Edinburgh imparts an almost frenzied desire to make use of any scrap of land which it can, and seems to threaten to devour you along with it.

Or, perhaps the reason that Edinburgh appears in this way to me could be the simple fact of its being dwarfed by the silent bulk of a dormant volcano – the elephantine rock of Arthur’s Seat. Nothing inspires images of solidity like a gigantic mass of basalt. Conversely, it could be the unnerving 18th century uniformity of the New Town, in which one building seems to flow endlessly into another until the whole city is knit together in one unbroken mass. It could simply be a miasma in the air. Whatever the cause, I wait eagerly for the point at which I might be able to think with more clarity about the individual buildings of Edinburgh as distinct subjects to be written on, rather than as a solidified, monolithic entity. They are, after all, by turns beguiling, monstrous, imposing, monumental, brutal, fanciful, whimsical, exaggerated, stoic, humble and utterly, endlessly fascinating.

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(Not really) leaving Brighton: a self-indulgent walk from the station to the South Lanes

A few months ago I wrote a post in which I claimed to be ‘leaving Brighton forever’ or something to that effect. That was, of course, groundless melodrama. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have been resurfacing in Brighton almost every week since then like a particularly obstinate piece of seaweed. Nonetheless, I’m now preparing to move to the other end of Britain and so wanted to write the place a little not-really-goodbye note. I wanted to write something of a psychogeographical (whatever that means) account of the place rather than a dry architectural catalogue, so I hope any readers will forgive the lack of factual rigour and technical detail in the coming paragraphs. Further, this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive overview of Brighton, just a brief nose around a couple of its more interesting corners.

I’ll begin where most visitors to Brighton begin (and have begun since 1840): Brighton Station. This enchanting building, at once sombre and fanciful, is one of Brighton’s most delightful structures, and remains a welcome point of entry (or reentry) to the place. It feels like an old Brightonian friend, a resident in the city for many years and staunch Albion fan, always prepared to welcome you with a grin and the suggestion of a pint as you step off the train to visit.

Brighton Station 'back in the day'

Brighton Station ‘back in the day’

Brighton Station today

Brighton Station today

Architecturally, Brighton Station is a mixture of Gothic flight-in-stone (or in this case, flight-in-wrought-iron) grandeur and serious, quasi-civic industrial solidity. Sturdy brick walls adorned with blind arches make up the base of the structure combining efforts with a series of iron colonnades to hold up spectacular rows of pointed arches, on top of which is draped a ceiling of gently curving glass. Baroque wrought-iron decoration is scattered discreetly about, ornate but restrained in a mid-nineteenth-century way. The resulting sensation is a delightful collision: placid, airy spacious calm on the one hand and the palpable sense of onrushing Victorian modernity on the other. Such a collision of relaxation and speed is an intoxicating mixture, and one which few other British railway stations (though there are some – York is an example) are able to achieve.

Leaving the station (perhaps with a measure of reluctance), the visitor is presented with the apparently infinite expanse of Queen’s Road, stretching out towards the sea like a red carpet. This road is essentially a series of undulations rolling resolutely southwards, meaning that it feels more like a rollercoaster or a particularly rough patch of ocean than a thoroughfare (though the abundance of traffic is a sobering reminder otherwise). There is not much to be struck by along the first half of this road, an admittedly varied but pedestrian mixture of late-Victorian ornament, smugly ‘referential’ postmodernism and the whiff of neoliberal regenerationism (freshly planted saplings and chrome benches). At its mid-point, however, just where it is intersected by North Road, the place suddenly hits you over the head with a violent, striking architectural spectacle: a quasi-aggressive cluster of hulking Brutalist monoliths. The easternmost of these three structures is perhaps the most dramatic: two rectilinear cuboids (one an office block, the other a car park) conjoined in the shape of a T, appearing from above like a church shorn of its chancel. These two crouch menacingly at the top of a hill, looming over the rows of comparatively humble Victorian dwellings and shops like a pair of golems in a display of uncompromising, thrilling architectural drama seldom paralleled anywhere in the South East, save perhaps Portsmouth or Southampton. Neighbouring this is a slightly smaller building, originally designed as a church judging from the concrete crucifix emblazoned on its front. This irregularly massed concrete jumble is a little less menacing – it is partly clad in inoffensive terracotta tiles – but its dogged asymmetry provides welcome relief from the monotony of bay window after bay window. Completing the triumvirate is another pair of colossal rectilinear cuboids, stretching with horizontal aplomb down Queen’s Road, brash in its 1960s newness, with a couple of walls clad in knapped flint as a subtle nod to geographical context. All these buildings are, of course, poorly maintained (such is the fate of an architecture that has been unfairly maligned as both the source and result of almost every social and political ill since the 1970s), but as Jonathan Meades remarked on the subject of high-rise apartments, ‘you don’t buy a car and never get it serviced’, and with some restorative care these buildings could one day become minor Brighton landmarks (if my naïve optimism is to have its way). I love these buildings for their sheer absurdity, their total strangeness, like the embattled wrecks of crude alien spacecraft. I hope they will survive the next twenty years, though I suspect I’m among the minority in that hope.

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 From here, bypass the bland monstrosity of the Churchill Square Shopping Centre and you’ll find yourself on West Street, a street which it is impossible to walk down past 8pm without having flyers for club nights with names like ‘SMACK’ or ‘VISION’ thrust in your face. It has little of architectural interest save for some vaguely remarkable Art Deco, a coolly Corbusian Wetherspoons named ‘The Brighthelm’ and the 19th century Gothic Revival church of St. Paul – of Caen stone clad in knapped flint with a delightfully dramatic wooden belfry at the top of its tower, in spirit more Bruges than Brighton. Otherwise it’s the usual central Brighton mix of slightly precarious 19th century baroque and late 90s/early noughties ‘pseudomodern Blairboxes’, in Owen Hatherley’s memorable phrase.

Arriving at the South end of West Street (sorry) and turning one’s head to the right, however, furnishes the viewer with a series of architectural oddities, displayed along the seafront like exhibits in a giant museum. First in this series is ‘Kingswest’, opened in 1965 as an entertainment complex and now serving as the home to the ‘Pryzm’ nightclub and a branch of ODEON cinema. It is a truly odd but strangely compelling thing – obstinately horizontal, like a giant paving slab, while around the edges of its roof bristle rows of metal teeth, like the serried hulls of a fleet of battleships. It appears for all the world like a fort, as though Napoleon had threatened to invade England in the late 1960s rather than the early 19th century.

Kingswest

Kingswest

Neighbouring Kingswest is a more conventional piece of Brutalism in the form of The Brighton Centre, unremarkable in the grand scheme of 1960s concrete but with its appearance like the beached hulk of a World War II-era floating dock it breaks up the stucco-clad façade of King’s Road with welcome gravitas, along with its jagged neighbour. Completing the spectacle of this portion of Brighton’s seafront is the late-nineteenth century Metropole Hotel, a terracotta brick-clad spectacle of round-arched neo-Byzantinisms and striated brick, which receives a reference in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’: “Unreal City / Under the brown fog of a winter noon / Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna  merchant / Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants / C.i.f. London: documents at sight, / Asked me in demotic French / To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a week-end at the Metropole”. Poetry aside, in its refusal to be painted white or cream the Metropole interrupts the seafront with a certain vitality (and the seafront at Brighton is in dire need of a little architectural interruption).

The Brighton Centre

The Brighton Centre

The Metropole

The Metropole

To the unstable pebbles of the beach itself now, past the rows of man-made caverns erected in service of the now long-dead fishing industry which was once the reason for Brighton’s existence, the remains of the West Pier jutting out of the water like the skeleton of a beached whale in one corner of your vision, the winking, whirling lights of the Palace Pier (now simply Brighton Pier) on the other. The sea! Finally the sea. It’s a bit windy, shall we go?

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An arrival at the beach might mark the end of many accounts of Brighton, but for me the soul of the place – by which I mean the source of its attitude, the point from which it seems to spill out – is in the South Lanes, that almost comically ramshackle cluster of vernacular informality. Certainly it has its imperfections, assaulted as it is by the relentless march of twee cupcake shops and faux-industrial coffee dispensaries on one side and successive 1980s/90s regimes of ‘regeneration’ on the other, but for the large part it is (if you can ignore the branch of ‘Choccywoccydooda’ and the Thistle Hotel building) characterised by an obstinate refusal to surrender entirely its architectural and spatial integrity. Here, labyrinthine alleyways and cobbled-together cottages still abound. Here jettied upper storeys, clad with clapboard to protect them from the sting of the sea, loom benignly like tottering drunks; here you might find a 15th century wall propping up one end of a pub, a remarkable find in a place almost entirely of the long 19th century; here it is possible to see something of the ocean-bitten, seafaring, salt-encrusted origins of Brighton persisting alongside a distinct air of Dickensian (apologies to Dickens for the generalisation) mid-19th century degeneracy – one almost expects to see gentlemen in battered top hats robbing drunken aristocrats blind by the light of a gas lamp. Most importantly, however, here is the place you and your mates can embed yourselves in the corner of a pub, languishing amongst the battered dark wood like a happy little coven, and drink too much – modern Brighton’s raison d’être.

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